Burma Campaign UK today sounded a note of caution about the pace of political change in Burma, and called on the international community not to move too fast to relax pressure on the Burmese government.
One year on from the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s democracy movement, most political prisoners remain in jail and human rights abuses have actually increased.
A series of reforms have taken place since July, and talks are taking place between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, but while appearing dramatic in context of the usual situation in Burma, the reforms so far are a long way from deep and irreversible change.
“Small reforms such as a slight relaxation of media censorship, and lifting the ban on some websites, when only 0.3 percent of the population even have access to the internet, have to be balanced against almost 150,000 people in ethnic states fleeing attacks by the Burmese Army, the increased use of gang-rape against women and girls, and most political prisoners remaining in jail,” said Wai Hnin, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK.
In the excitement over the reforms implemented so far, the deteriorating human rights situation is being overlooked. In his September report to the UN General Assembly, Thomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, has reported: ‘…serious human rights violations, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscations, the recruitment of child soldiers and forced labour and portering.’
More than 200 political prisoners have been released, but this is around half the number Thein Sein’s predecessor, Than Shwe, released when he came to power. Prisoners continue to face torture and inhumane conditions. Many are still in remote jails to make it more difficult for family to visit and bring essential food and medicine, and political prisoners are routinely denied proper medical care. While the government officially denies political prisoners even exist, they privately admit that there are around 600 political prisoners. The real number is at least twice, possibly three times as many.
The Burmese government has also been praised for reforming the election law, which may allow the National League for Democracy (NLD) to re-register as a political party, and take part in by-elections. The NLD is expected to make a decision on 18th November. However, it was only 18 months ago that the old law was introduced. The government has a track record of taking one step back, then one step forward, and then being praised for the step forward despite the fact that no real progress has been made.
More political prisoners are expected to be released on Monday 14th November. Hundreds would need to be released just to take Burma back to the numbers of political prisoners before the Monk-led uprising in 2007.
“There is no doubt significant events have taken pace in the past year, that there is potential for change, and that the international community should respond positively when real change starts to happen, but we are not there yet,” said Wai Hnin “The increasing human rights abuses cannot be ignored. The reforms so far haven’t filtered down to reduce human rights abuses or make life better for ordinary people.”