Will the Recent "Reforms" in Myanmar Affect the Outlook for Human Rights?

Jim Roberts, AIUSA Myanmar Country Specialist

In November of 2010 Myanmar held its first national elections since 1989 and a few days later released National League for Democracy General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.  The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) made up of eighteen generals and admirals that had ruled the country since 1988 was dissolved and its Chairman Senior General Than Shwe officially retired.  The new parliament was inaugurated in March of this year and it elected a former army general Thein Sein president. The country’s name was changed from the Union of Myanmar to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and the national flag was replaced with a new one.  More interesting developments followed.  

The UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, was allowed to visit and interview some political prisoners and meet with opposition figures in August.  President Thein Sein met with Aung San Suu Kyi, something that would have been unimaginable under the SPDC.  Daily propaganda slogans against “internal and external destructive elements’ including the BBC and Voice of America began to disappear from the government-controlled news media. The new U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma (the U.S. still officially calls the country by its old name) Derrick Mitchell has travelled to Naypyitaw to meet with officials and opposition leaders three times in the last few months.  Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner jointed Mitchell on the last trip in early November.  The government has announced an “end to censorship” including the unblocking of sensitive websites that were previously prohibited. A process leading to the legalization of Aung San Suu Kyi’s banned political party, the National League for Democracy, seems to be underway. A National Human Rights Commission has been set up.

Understandably these developments have provoked new feelings of optimism in many quarters. But, as one commentator recently wrote most of that optimism seems to be coming from outside Myanmar. 

Some of those optimists expected that in line with its “reform” program Myanmar would free all its political prisoners when it announced an amnesty in October. But only a little over 200 of the approximate 2,100 political prisoners were released.

Political prisoners continue to suffer under appalling prison conditions including beatings, overcrowding and extremely substandard medical care.

At the same time there has been no let up in the military’s operations against the Kachin, Karen and other ethnic armed groups which have always been accompanied by gross human rights violations against civilians in the contested areas.

When 15 political prisoners in Insein Prison near Yangon commenced a hunger strike on October 26 to protest denial of the same reductions in sentences that were granted to criminal prisoners, the reaction of the government was to torture them by denying them drinking water and placing eight of them in small filthy cells designed to hold dogs.

One might argue that the government of Myanmar cannot completely reform itself overnight if indeed that is its plan. But how long does it take to stop arresting political prisoners?  How long does it take to stop torturing people?  How long does it take to transfer the monk U Gambira to a hospital where he can be treated for complications of torture injuries sustained in April 2009? How long does it take to turn a key in a cell door?  And how long does it take the army to stop the killings and rape of civilians in its counterinsurgency operations?

Maybe when a few of those things start happening the real optimism can begin.

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