(New York) - Asian and European governments meeting in China this week should press Burma to improve its human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today.
The seventh Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit is being held in Beijing on October 24-25, 2008, with leaders from 45 countries scheduled to attend, including Prime Minister Thein Sein of Burma. ASEM promotes cooperative efforts by Europe and Asia to meet global challenges.
"ASEM members have a chance to challenge Burma to make political reforms and start respecting basic freedoms," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Silence over the human rights abuses in today's Burma isn't an option anymore for ASEM leaders."
Human Rights Watch said the ASEM meeting is an important opportunity to exert crucially needed pressure on the Burmese military government following the breakdown of United Nations efforts at mediation.
Ibrahim Gambari, the UN secretary-general's special adviser on Myanmar, failed to gain any concessions during two visits to Burma in 2008, though the Security Council has called for "tangible progress" in Burma on political reforms. Senior Burmese leaders refused to meet with Gambari in August, and Burmese officials contended that he was meddling in the country's domestic affairs.
A constitutional referendum in Burma held in May delayed urgent humanitarian relief after Cyclone Nargis. The military government claims that over 98 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote and that 92 percent of them endorsed a constitution that cements military rule.
Human Rights Watch has reported on the human rights problems surrounding the referendum, including tight restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and on the media. Now that the referendum has been completed, the military government says it will hold elections in 2010.
"Since Burma's rulers have stonewalled on the efforts by the UN to bring about real change, it's up to ASEM ministers to send a message that sham political reforms are unacceptable," Adams said.
As part of the European Union's sanctions against Burma, no senior official from the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is permitted to enter Europe or to attend multilateral meetings in Europe unless a "political dialogue is conducted that directly promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Burma/Myanmar."
Under these conditions, the European Union invited Nyan Win, Burma's foreign minister, to last year's ASEM meeting in Hamburg. But EU efforts to raise human rights issues during the meeting, as well as through other private consultations with Nyan Win, failed to produce any human rights improvements for Burma's population.
Human Rights Watch urged the European Union to put pressure on Burma's main supporters in ASEM: China, the host of the summit, India, Singapore, and other ASEAN states. China and India in particular have forged close relations with the SPDC. Both countries are major arms suppliers to and significant investors in Burma, and have vied for the rights to import natural gas from Burma.
"The EU has tried to press Burma at past ASEM meetings, but as long as other key Asian countries fail to pick up the torch, improvements are highly unlikely," said Adams. "It's the collective responsibility of ASEM members not to sacrifice the rights of the Burmese people because of potentially lucrative business and energy deals."
Human Rights Watch called on Asian and European leaders attending the ASEM meeting to push the SPDC to:
- Immediately and unconditionally release an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and permit them free and unfettered participation in political activities;
- Cease restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association;
- Cease military attacks against ethnic minority populations, and hold accountable all members of the security forces responsible for war crimes; and
• End the recruitment of children under the age of 18 for the armed forces, and demobilize children under 18 who are already serving.