Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2017, 11:43 GMT

Keeping human rights on the agenda in Myanmar

Publisher IRIN
Publication Date 6 June 2013
Cite as IRIN, Keeping human rights on the agenda in Myanmar, 6 June 2013, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

As hundreds of representatives from 55 countries, including world leaders, business chiefs and media people meet in Myanmar for the World Economic Forum on East Asia, activists are warning the international community not to forget human rights.

Myanmar faces a multitude of challenges, including ongoing instances of torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and hundreds of political prisoners still languishing in prison, according to the US State Department's annual Human Rights Report for 2012.

"The human rights situation on the ground for most people in [Myanmar] remains unchanged and will only improve if human rights remain clearly on the agenda," Matilda Bogner, regional representative for the UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in Southeast Asia, told IRIN in Bangkok.

Over the past two years, the Burmese government has been lauded for its political and economic reforms, resulting in the lifting of Western sanctions and an increase in foreign investment.

However, little has been done to address the widespread human rights abuses which had prompted the USA and European Union (EU) to freeze economic cooperation from 1962 to 2011, she said.

For Burmese President Thein Sein who came to power two years ago, the three-day event (5-7 June) in Naypyidaw, the country's new political capital, is an opportunity to showcase his country's recent economic and political reforms.

Once one of the wealthiest countries in the region - with an abundance of minerals, teak, rice, oil and gas - many investors and governments, are jostling to position themselves in the country, seen by many as Asia's last great investment opportunity, say experts.

The EU lifted the last of its trade, economic and individual sanctions on Myanmar in April 2013, while the USA has successively alleviated restrictions on investment and banking, currently allowing US companies to invest in and conduct business with four of the country's 12 banks, according to local Burmese news sources.


But after 50 years of brutal military rule, activists and analysts are calling for caution.

"By giving too many rewards too quickly, the international community is giving up any leverage it may want to use in the future to push for further reforms or to prevent backsliding," said Bill Davis, the former Myanmar project director for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an investigative medical NGO.

"The international community should realize that after 60 years of brutal dictatorship, Burma is not going to change overnight."

While "real" gains have been made, such as the release of more than 600 political prisoners, as well as an easing of media censorship, ethnic communities continue to face systematic discrimination by the national government, said OHCHR's Bogner.

"Accountability and rule of law need to be at the centre of reform efforts," she stressed.

Repressive laws

In January the government rescinded a law barring more than four people from assembling in public, but other laws continue to criminalize membership of "unlawful" associations.

For example, the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, requires individuals to have official permission to gather, according to a March report by Forum Asia and Burma Partnership.

In Kachin and northern Shan states conflict between state and non-state armed groups has led to unlawful killings of civilians, detention, forced labour and sexual violence perpetrated by the military against local communities, according to Amnesty International.

"These resource-motivated conflicts lead to severe human rights abuses, and should be a major concern to companies considering investment in large-scale natural resource projects in Myanmar," said Paul Donowitz, the campaigns director of Earth Rights International (ERI).

While the 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was initially broken by the Burmese military in 2011 over a Chinese-funded hydroelectric project in Sinbo Province, the banning of Kachin groups from being represented in parliament in the November 2010 election, as well as a government call to incorporate the KIA along with other armed ethnic groups into a single border guard force fuelled tensions still further, resulting in fresh fighting in June 2011.

"The current conflict is one of many that are rooted in Burmese policy towards ethnic nationalities," said PHR's Davis.

Rising displacement

In its rush to normalize relations with Myanmar, the international community - particularly the UN - must not ignore the increase in abuses being committed against ethnic minorities in Rakhine and Kachin states, and it must take a stronger stance in defence of the human rights of affected populations, says a 30 May report by Refugees International, noting that rates of forced displacement for ethnic minorities had actually increased since 2011.

"Despite the reforms, few displaced people in areas where ceasefires with rebel groups have been reached have returned to their original homes as yet," said Melanie Teff, a senior Refugees International official.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are more than 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar today, including 85,000 in Kachin and Shan states, as well as an estimated 140,000 people - mostly Rohingyas - in Rakhine State following two deadly bouts of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012.

Another 12,000 Muslim residents were displaced following sectarian violence in Meikhtila Township (central Myanmar) in March 2013, while at least 400,000 IDPs are living along the Thai-Burmese border due to longstanding, unresolved ethnic tensions with the government over autonomy.

Following events in Meikhtila, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea Quintana said he had received reports of state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces stood by while atrocities were "committed before their very eyes".

At the same time, a recent HRW report accused the government of complicity in Rakhine, adding it was actively "engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya" - a charge the Burmese government was quick to deny.

"Although there are some who criticized [Myanmar] quoting the HRW report, [you can see] Myanmar has been praised recently for its human rights progress by the US which promotes human rights activities around the world," said Zaw Htay, the director for the President's Office on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said one of the bright spots in the world today was Myanmar, where democratic reform and better human rights protections were also ending years of isolation.

"Has it reached where we want it to be? No. But it's on the road. It's moving," he said. "And by starting to embrace universal rights, the Myanmar government has opened the doors to a stronger partnership with their neighborhood and with countries around the world."

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