Political Prisoners, Abuses in Conflict Areas Show Violations Persist
March 30, 2012

(New York,) – Burma’s April 1, 2012 by-elections are a step forward, but are not a real test of the government’s commitment to democratic reform, Human Rights Watch said today.

“April’s by-election in Burma will almost certainly bring opposition voices into parliament, and that will be a step forward,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But given the small number of seats involved, these by-elections should not be touted as a serious test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform. The real test is whether the new parliament can reform repressive law and civilians can assert authority over the military, which continues to commit abuses in ethnic areas.”

The by-elections will be for 45 constituencies, the majority in the Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly) of the national parliament. Seventeen parties will field candidates, but the election will fill only 43 of 664 seats, or fewer than 5 percent, in the bicameral national assembly, and two regional assembly seats. Aung San Suu Kyi will contest for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Kawhmu township on the outskirts of Rangoon. It is the first time she has run for parliament in Burma following more than two decades of state oppression against her party and 15 years of house arrest for her peaceful political activities.

The Burmese government paradoxically has an interest in a victory by NLD candidates to legitimize its reform process, Human Rights Watch said. But even if it wins most of the available seats it will still constitute a tiny minority of Burma’s parliament. As a result, the elections are not a real test of whether the government is committed to free and fair elections.

The elections that will decide Burma’s political future will come in 2015, when 75% of the parliament will be contested. It remains to be seen whether the government – and Burma’s military – will allow the NLD to win the 2015 election and cede it power, Human Rights Watch said.

Conditions around the elections have largely been peaceful, but some opposition candidates have reported harassment and intimidation by local authorities, destruction and defacing of posters, and concerns over vote-rigging using advance ballots, as seen in the November 7, 2010 elections.

“I don’t think we can consider it genuinely free and fair if we consider what has been going on for the last couple months,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at a news conference on March 30, citing “many, many cases of intimidation” of NLD party members by officials. She said that local officials have also kept the names of people who have died on voter rolls, while excluding eligible voters. Aung San Suu Kyi has drawn large crowds to her political rallies throughout Burma over several weeks of campaigning, yet has also decried a number of irregularities.

There have been encouraging signs of change in Burma in the past year, including easing of official censorship, a new law on the right to strike, and amendments to electoral laws that permitted Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to register. However, the overall human rights situation remains dire, Human Rights Watch said.

Despite a series of amnesties for political prisoners, several hundred political prisoners remain. Laws promulgated in recent months, including laws on peaceful assembly, fall short of international standards. The newly created National Human Rights Commission also falls short of the Paris Principles on national human rights bodies, and the commission has not seriously investigated complaints of human rights abuses.

The government has embarked on cease-fire negotiations with a number of armed ethnic rebel groups. However, army abuses against ethnic minorities continue and the armed forces have not changed their abusive behavior in ethnic conflict areas. On March 23, voting was postponed in three constituencies in Kachin State – Hpakant, Bhamo, and Mogaung – due to security concerns.

Fighting has been ongoing since June 2011 in Kachin State, with 75,000 people displaced as a result. Human Rights Watch’s report, “‘Untold Miseries:’ Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State,” documents serious abuses by the Burmese army against ethnic Kachin civilians, including forced labor, targeting of civilians, torture, and ill-treatment.

Despite these remaining human rights challenges, some Asian and European countries are calling for the repeal of Western sanctions if the by-elections are conducted in a peaceful manner. Human Rights Watch urges the United States, members of the European Union, Australia, and Canada to craft policies that will reduce sanctions step by step in response to significant steps toward reform and greater respect for human rights by the Burmese government. Foreign donors should work with the government to institute sufficient legal, human rights, anti-corruption, and environmental safeguards to ensure that reforms are sustainable in the long term.

“The April 1 by-election is not a panacea to Burma’s continuing human rights challenges and the international community shouldn’t be lulled into equating elections with reform,” Pearson said. “Prematurely scrapping sanctions and blindly pursuing engagement for humanitarian assistance and foreign investment in the absence of a functioning legal framework could derail the fragile gains of the past year.”

In recent days, the Burmese government has permitted an estimated 159 accredited international observers to monitor the election, announcing in late March that officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), India and Japan, European diplomats and officials, and representatives from the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) would be permitted to observe at polling places.

Human Rights Watch said, however, that there has not been sufficient scrutiny during the period leading up to the election. As a result, the ad-hoc observer arrangement is well below international standards of election monitoring.

Hundreds of international journalists, including Burmese journalists exiled for many years, have been granted short-term journalist visas in the past week. However, many applied several weeks in advance. Burmese journalists have been permitted much greater freedoms than they have generally had to report on the by-elections, but the authorities still censor all print media to influence or remove reporting on sensitive issues, including human rights violations.

Whatever the outcome, the by-elections will not significantly alter the balance of power in the national parliament, with seats controlled by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the 25 percent of seats reserved for military officers amounting to close to 75 percent of the seats. Even if opposition parties win all 37 open seats in the People’s Assembly, it will not be enough to challenge the government’s legislative program or to pass constitutional amendments, which requires 75 percent approval.

“By-elections by themselves won’t dramatically change the balance of power in Burma, which is constitutionally, legally, and coercively in favor of the government and the military,” Pearson said. “Sunday’s vote is important, but more toward preparing for general elections in 2015, so the real test of the next three years should be to improve the rights situation.” 

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