President Hu Jintao
People’s Republic of China
Zhongnanhai, Xichengqu, Beijing City
People’s Republic of China

Dear President Hu:

On August 8, 2008, more than a billion people around the globe will celebrate the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Millions of Burmese, however, are unlikely to focus that day on the Olympic theme of “One World, One Dream,” but rather will observe the 20th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy protests in Burma, during which an estimated 3,000 people were killed.

On August 8, 2008, more than a billion people around the globe will celebrate the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Millions of Burmese, however, are unlikely to focus that day on the Olympic theme of “One World, One Dream,” but rather will observe the 20th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy protests in Burma, during which an estimated 3,000 people were killed.

We realize that your government chose to open the Beijing Olympics on 08-08-08 for symbolic reasons, but recent events in Burma mean that the spotlight on that date will also be on the continued suffering of the Burmese people. Your government has resisted efforts to link the Olympics with human rights concerns in China and in China’s relations with abusive governments. Yet your government’s reluctance to condemn the latest acts of brutality by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), its ongoing—and crucial—support to the SPDC, and the coincidence of the two events only raises the stakes for China to act swiftly and constructively to help protect the people of Burma from further human rights abuses.

In August and September peaceful protests were staged throughout several cities in Burma calling for improved living standards, respect for basic rights, and the conduct of a genuine political dialogue with opposition politicians, many of whom remain in prison. The response by the SPDC security forces was brutal by any measure: riot police and army units used baton charges, tear gas, and shot directly at Buddhist monks and civilians engaged in peaceful protests. It appears likely that the death toll is considerably larger than the official figure of 10, and injuries were also likely to be very high. Thousands of participants in the demonstrations were arrested; many, including monks, were reportedly tortured in custody. Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for. SPDC security forces continue to conduct nighttime arrests and intimidation of people suspected of involvement in the demonstrations. The brutal crackdown has only worsened the poor state of the economy and increased already widespread dissatisfaction with military control of the country.

In response to the crisis, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which rarely speaks out on human rights concerns, has publicly expressed its “revulsion” in response to Burma’s assaults on peaceful demonstrations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described the SPDC’s actions as “abhorrent and unacceptable.” The Security Council, with your government’s consent, has in a presidential statement rightly called for the release of political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

It is, however, regrettable that we have not heard directly from Beijing the strong words of condemnation such as those from ASEAN and from the secretary-general. Similar public criticism from China would have an immediate effect in Burma. Merely calling for peaceful resolution of the crisis without referencing the SPDC’s abuses, suggests that China does not see it as important that the lethal policies of the government should change.

As one of Burma’s neighbors, its largest investors, and its main suppliers of weaponry, China indisputably wields the power to positively influence this situation. We have noted the Chinese government’s rhetoric expressing mild concern, yet without concrete action this changes little inside Burma.

Given your government’s relationship with the Burmese government, as a member of the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council, and as a self-described “responsible power,” we believe China is able to bring about the dramatic improvement of the dire human rights situation in Burma by taking the following steps:

  • Immediately place an embargo on all weapons transfers from China to Burma and suspend all military training, transport, assistance, and cooperation.
  • Support or abstain from vetoing UN Security Council resolutions calling for sanctions or other collective action to address the crisis in Burma. Constructively engage with other Security Council members to design and adopt appropriate multilateral sanctions on Burma. Sanctions should be pegged to the government meeting specific human rights conditions. These should include the release of all persons arbitrarily detained for exercising their basic human rights to free expression, association, and assembly, and an accurate official accounting of the numbers, whereabouts, and conditions of individuals killed, arrested, and detained by the security forces.
  • In the absence of Security Council-imposed sanctions, China (along with other countries) should act to impose targeted sanctions to encourage the steps outlined above:
    • Sanctions, including financial sanctions, should be targeted at leading officials, both military and civilian, who bear responsibility for abuses, as well as others who may assist in, or be complicit in, the evasion of sanctions by those individuals. Those sanctioned should be identified by means of a fair process, and the sanctions should be subject to regular monitoring of both their impact on human rights and whether the steps outlined are being reached.
    • Consistent with human rights measures previously adopted or currently under consideration by the European Union and United States, China should also ban new investment and prohibit the importation of select products from Burma.
    • Prohibit business partnerships with or payments to entities owned or controlled by the Burmese military, and whose revenues are largely used to finance military operations (as opposed to social spending).
  • Uphold the 1951 Refugee Convention and customary international law and allow anyone fleeing persecution in Burma to cross the border into China.
  • Suspend involvement by state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation and Sinopec, both official Olympic partners, in the proposed Burma-China oil and natural gas pipelines until the conditions specified above in relation to multilateral sanctions are met. As Human Rights Watch has previously described, we are concerned that the proposed construction of overland pipelines would exacerbate the serious human rights situation in Burma. In light of recent events, Human Rights Watch urged all companies to suspend activities related to onshore pipeline projects in Burma, as we do not believe it will be possible for them to carry out such projects without becoming complicit in the abuse of human rights.
  • Instruct Chinese firms, including stated-owned firms, with business ties to Burma to publicly and fully disclose all payments made to the Burmese military, directly or through the entities it controls.
  • Continue to urge the SPDC to engage in dialogue with its critics, and end its repression of them. The Seven Step Road Map to Democracy, which is merely a cover for continued military rule, must be scrapped and replaced with a plan that has the genuine support of Burma’s political parties and ethnic groups.
  • Urge the SPDC to reconvene a truly representative and participatory national convention that operates through an open and transparent consultative process that could lead to a new constitutional settlement that genuinely reflects the views of all parties and leads to the creation of a civilian government.

Should the Chinese government take such steps, it is possible that on August 8, 2008—a date on which your country will be the focus of unprecedented international interest—it will likely be credited rather than criticized for its role in Burma. It is not only right that China should stand with the people of Burma against state repression and abuse, it is in China’s self-interest to do so.

Sincerely,

Ken Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch