Anti-Muslim Abuses, Legal Setbacks Highlight Fragility of Reforms
January 21, 2014
Burma’s human rights progress in the past year has been significant but uneven, particularly in the face of rising anti-Muslim violence in the country. That should be a clear note of caution for those heaping praise on the country’s political transition.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director

(Bangkok) – Burma’s improved rights record in 2013 was undermined by renewed violence against the Muslim minority and setbacks in law reform, Human Rights Watch today said in its World Report 2014.  

“Burma’s human rights progress in the past year has been significant but uneven, particularly in the face of rising anti-Muslim violence in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “That should be a clear note of caution for those heaping praise on the country’s political transition.”

In the 667-page World Report 2014, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa.  Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

Communal violence against Muslim communities spread in central Burma during 2013, with the government taking inadequate measures to prevent or stop it, Human Rights Watch said. In March, the police failed to intervene effectively when Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim communities in the town of Meiktila, killing at least 44 people and destroying 1,400 mostly Muslim-owned businesses and houses. Similar violent attacks were reported in Pegu and Okkan north of Rangoon, and in Lashio in Shan State. In October, attacks against Kaman Muslims near the town of Thandwe in southern Arakan State killed at least six people and destroyed nearly 100 houses.

State-sponsored discrimination against the ethnic Rohingya minority continued. An estimated 180,000 Rohingya and others remained displaced in Arakan State, many as a result of the 2012 “ethnic cleansing” campaign, where they face serious obstacles to humanitarian assistance and other rights violations because of being denied Burmese citizenship.

In Kachin State, an estimated 100,000 civilians remained internally displaced from the 2011-2013 conflict, which reached a tentative ceasefire in March, even as fighting and abuses against civilians persisted episodically throughout the year.

The government released several hundred political prisoners in 2013, notably in two amnesties in October and November. Yet President Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political prisoners by year’s end was not realized. Hundreds of other peaceful activists not included in the government’s “political prisoner” count continue to face charges for violating Burma’s flawed Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession law. Other legislative efforts to improve rights protections were uneven, such as efforts to amend laws restricting media freedoms, even as Burma’s media enjoyed the most openness it has experienced in decades. A problematic draft association law improved after sustained resistance from Burmese civil society organizations.

“Burma’s government has learned to speak the language of rights promotion – but implementation lags well behind,” Robertson said. “The government needs to follow through on its promises in 2014 and ensure bloodshed stops and the human rights of all of Burma’s religious and ethnic minorities are protected.”

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