Burma Campaign UK today called on British Foreign Secretary William Hague to ensure the European Union maintains pressure on the military backed government in Burma until all political prisoners are released and other key benchmarks are met.
Burma Campaign UK is concerned that the Foreign Office is taking too soft a line within the European Union, and is not fighting hard to maintain targeted economic sanctions which are helping to push the government of Burma to start making reforms.
Some EU governments, led by Germany, have long put business interests before human rights in Burma, and favoured lifting sanctions even before there had been any reforms. Following limited top-down reforms now taking place, some EU governments are pushing for a major relaxation of EU sanctions, despite none of the EU benchmarks for reform having been met. The British government has traditionally been one of strongest within the EU supporting targeted sanctions to promote reform. However, in recent months the British government appears to have softened its policy.
“The British government fought hard to get the EU to impose sanctions, and now, just as sanctions are being shown to have an impact, they are not doing enough to stop major sanctions being relaxed prematurely,” said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK. “There are still hundreds of political prisoners in jail, and if the British government lets the EU relax pressure prematurely, the chances of them all being released will be small.”
EU Foreign Ministers need to renew sanctions on Burma on 23rd April, but after by-elections due on 1st April could make an announcement as early as next week on which sanctions are lifted or suspended. The main EU sanctions include a visa ban for government officials and business associates, an asset freeze for people on the visa ban list, a ban on trade and investment in the gems, metals and timber industries, a ban on investment in some named state owned enterprises, withdrawal of GSP privileges, and an arms embargo. There are also restrictions on aid being delivered through the government.
EU members, including the UK, have raised three key issues as benchmarks which need to be met before all sanctions are lifted. None have been met.
One is the unconditional release of all political prisoners. While hundreds of political prisoners have been released, most have been released conditionally. Hundreds remain in jail, while the government officially denies they even exist and refuses to allow independent monitors into Burma’s jails to assess how many prisoners remain. In Kachin State, northern Burma, innocent civilians, including farmers, are being jailed and tortured on suspicion of being supporters of the Kachin Independence Organisation. No laws which enabled the jailing of political prisoners have been repealed.
Ceasefires or provisional ceasefires have been signed with almost all the armed ethnic political parties in Burma. However, the Burmese Army has repeatedly broken these ceasefires, and is bringing in more soldiers and supplies into ethnic states where ceasefires have been signed. No ceasefire has been signed with the Kachin independence organisation in Kachin State, and the Burmese Army is continuing attacks against civilians. The Burmese Army is committing horrific abuses in Kachin state, including rape, torture, executions, beatings, burning villages, looting, and mortar bombing and burning civilian’s homes and villages. President Thein Sein is still refusing to allow the UN and other agencies to operate freely to help the 70,000 internally people forced to flee their homes. Thein Sein is also refusing to enter into genuine dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict, so the ceasefires are likely to be temporary.
Free and Fair By-Elections
Under Burma’s electoral law and many other security and censorship laws, it is impossible for any election in Burma to be free and fair. Small parties especially are marginalised by huge fees for registering candidates and numerous other restrictions. The National League for Democracy and other parties have also highlighted numerous cases of unfair practices, including problems with voter lists, banning of election rallies, censorship, voter intimidation and bribery. Censorship and security laws also remain in place which make it impossible for parties and candidates to operate freely. The Unlawful Associations Act also remains in place, which bans many political organisations from being legal parties, including many of the most widely supported ethnic political parties.
The Burmese government has already failed to reach the benchmark of free and fair by-elections before a single vote has even been cast.
Even if the elections were free and fair, it is only for a small number of seats in a Parliament which is constitutionally powerless to do anything without military approval.
None of the benchmarks set by the EU have been met. Even these benchmarks, while appearing strong, do not require the government of Burma to repeal a single law or make any constitutional change which reduces in any way the power of the government and military over the people.
“EU sanctions should be reduced gradually in response to concrete change,” said Mark Farmaner. “There have been some positive changes in Burma, but at the same time human rights abuses have increased in the past year, and no repressive laws have been repealed. EU governments appear to be willing to ignore the realities on the ground in the race for EU companies to grab Burma’s rich natural resources.”