Dear Prime Minister,
We write to you ahead of President Thein Sein’s official visit to Thailand from July 22 to 24, 2012, to urge you to raise concerns about the human rights situation in Burma. Thailand, as one of Burma’s major political and economic partners and a core member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has significant influence that it can use to help improve respect for human rights and promote political reform in Burma. We urge you and your government to take advantage of this visit to press for the following policies.
Your government has publicly and repeatedly pledged Thailand’s support for political reforms in Burma, particularly improvements in human rights and the humanitarian situation.
There have been important changes in Burma in the past year, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the easing of official censorship, passage of a new labor law that permits forming unions and the right to strike, and amendments to electoral laws that enabled the opposition National League for Democracy to register and successfully contest April by-elections.
However, overall the Burmese government’s record on human rights remains poor. The Burmese army has committed killings, torture, rape, forced labor, and other violations against civilians in Kachin State and northern Shan State since civil war resumed in June 2011 between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The army has attacked villages and laid antipersonnel landmines, resulting in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, while the government has restricted the delivery of humanitarian aid by international agencies to internally displaced people in KIA-controlled territory.
Abuses by the Burmese military during hostilities with ethnic armed groups have long had a significant impact on Thailand’s border areas and have led to major refugee flows. In the pursuit of peace settlements between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups, mechanisms to protect and promote human rights should be established and included.
In western Burma, state security forces have conducted violent sweeps and mass arrests of ethnic Rohingya after the outbreak of sectarian violence. The government has taken no steps to address the statelessness of up to one million Rohingya, many families of which have lived in Burma for several generations.
Despite the welcome release of many political prisoners, several hundred others remain in prison. Many of those who have been released have had conditions placed on their freedom, such as restrictions on their ability to travel abroad. A law promulgated on the right to peaceful assembly falls well short of international standards, allowing for imprisonment for up to five years for violations. While we welcome the creation of the National Human Rights Commission, it does not meet the standards set out in the United Nations Paris Principles on national human rights institutions, and has so far not shown a willingness to seriously investigate complaints of human rights violations.
Burma remains a long way from being a functioning democracy. The government was installed by the army. Under the 2008 Constitution, the army retains ultimate power in the country. A quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. Local political power has hardly changed since the recent changes at the national level, which has meant that the unelected and often abusive local authorities remain in control.
While the recent by-elections were an important step, they only involved 7 percent of seats in parliament, and thus no significant realignment of parliamentary power. A more meaningful test of Burma’s commitment to democracy will be in its respect for plurality and transparency in legal reform; its willingness to strengthen democratic institutions such as the courts; its promotion and protection of basic human rights and respect for the laws of war; its commitment to the end of discrimination and equality of opportunity for ethnic minorities in political, economic, social, and cultural realms; and in the seriousness with which the government addresses issues of impunity for current and past human rights abuses.
Thailand should seize this opportunity to actively and effectively engage with Burmese authorities and a broad range of Burmese-led civil society organizations, including groups in remote areas and those working on issues in Burma from Thailand, to help develop tangible plans with realistic timeframes for genuine reforms.
The government of Thailand should press the government of Burma to:
- Release all remaining political prisoners.
Remove all conditions placed on released political prisoners.
- Take all necessary steps to end serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma’s conflict areas by the Burmese army.
Investigate allegations of abuses in conflict areas; discipline and prosecute perpetrators as appropriate; and promptly and adequately compensate victims of abuse.
- Allow international and domestic humanitarian organizations and independent human rights monitors unhindered access to populations in need, including in Kachin and Arakan States, and permit the delivery of sufficient humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons and others.
- Include mechanisms in any political settlements reached between the government and ethnic armed groups to protect and promote human rights in ethnic areas, including civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
Bring Burmese laws, regulations, and practices into conformity with international human rights standards, including by revoking laws, decrees, and orders, including those issued as proclamations by previous military governments, that violate fundamental rights, such as the Unlawful Associations Act, the Emergency Provisions Act, the State Protection Law, and sections of the Penal Code that severely limit the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
- Amend provisions in the 2008 Constitution that prevent the military from being accountable to civilian authority, particularly article 445, which provides an amnesty for members of the previous ruling State Peace and Development Council and military juntas.
Fully implement the government-International Labor Organization (ILO) memorandum of understanding to eliminate all forms of forced labor, in line with the action plan agreed by the two sides; and ratify ILO core labor conventions 98, 100, 105, 111, 138, and 182.
- Remove remaining barriers to the effective exercise of the right to freedom of association, including obstacles to formation of labor unions, worker centers and worker rights-focused nongovernmental organizations, and provide protection for labor activists and organizers from interference and retaliation by employers and government for involvement in peaceful labor protests and strikes.
Human Rights Watch is concerned by the views expressed by Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul during the 4th Thai-US Strategic Dialogue in June, when he committed Thailand to help convince the United States and other countries to lift all sanctions against Burma. Prematurely lifting all sanctions before reforms are firmly embedded in Burmese law and practice will remove necessary incentives among the Burmese leadership, particularly in the security establishment, to change their treatment of the population. It will also limit the ability of President Thein Sein to remove hardliners and those with records of abuse from important positions. Sending the wrong signal on sanctions at this time could derail the fragile gains of the past year.
Pursuing foreign investment in the absence of a functioning legal system will also put investors at risk. In construction and maintenance of large-scale infrastructure projects, the Burmese military has a long record of carrying out serious violations, including forced relocations of civilians, and systematic use of forced labor. In addition, there are credible reports of serious abuses by Burmese government security forces in a variety of other sectors, such as mining, logging, and industrial agricultural farming. Some of these projects receive foreign investment, including from Thailand. In this light, we urge the Thai government to develop and implement legal safeguards that comport with international human rights standards with regard to business activities of Thai companies in Burma, such as the Dawei Deep Sea Port and industrial estate project in Tennaserim Division, coal mining projects in Shan State, hydropower dam projects in Shan State and Karen State, and investments in the oil and gas sector. Thailand should suspend any financing for Thai-invested projects that do not abide by these safeguards.
Thailand should respect its obligation under customary international law to not commit refoulement (forcible return) of any asylum seeker or refugee to Burma. Specifically, the Thai government should guarantee all Burmese access to screening and status determination procedures if they wish to make an asylum claim. Anyone from Burma in Thailand wishing to apply for asylum should have the practical means to do so and not be barred from making such application by the Thai authorities.
Poor treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers from Burma by a succession of Thai governments continues to open Thailand to international scrutiny and criticism. Recent examples include the push backs of Rohingya, who arrived on Thai shores after seeking refuge by sea, out into the open ocean, and more recently, the ill-considered and rights-violating plan by Labor Minister Padermchai Sasomsap to deport migrant workers who become pregnant. We urge you to protect the rights of all Burmese refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Thailand.
In conclusion, we do not underestimate the challenge that you will face in addressing these issues with your Burmese counterparts. But Human Rights Watch is certain that Thailand has unique leverage that it can exercise to make a significant and positive difference in Burma in the years ahead.
We look forward to your attention to these matters of concern and would welcome the opportunity to discuss them with you.