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Burma: Make Ban’s Visit Meaningful

UN Leader Should Stand Firm on Prisoners, Election, Political Dialogue, Minorities

(New York) – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his trip to Burma should press the ruling generals to publicly commit to the release of all political prisoners and to engage in a dialogue with the opposition that leads to genuine political reforms, Human Rights Watch said today. Ban should not accept the return of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest or vague statements about political reform as signs of a successful visit.

Ban arrives in Burma on July 3, 2009, the same day that Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial on politically motivated charges is set to resume. Speaking from Tokyo on July 1, Ban rightly noted that three of most important benchmarks are the release of all political prisoners, the immediate resumption of national reconciliation dialogue between Burma’s military government and opposition leaders, and the creation of conditions for credible elections “which needs to be taken next year in a most objective, transparent and democratic manner.”

“Ban Ki-moon has offered Burma’s generals a roadmap to ending their international isolation,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “He should make it clear that the time for stalling and playing games is over and that real change is needed now.”

Human Rights Watch said that human rights conditions in Burma are deteriorating. Arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and mistreatment of political activists have intensified. In the last two years, the number of political prisoners has doubled to 2,100. Armed attacks on ethnic minority populations continue to lead to large-scale displacement. Basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly remain almost nonexistent.

Ban has recognized Aung San Suu Kyi as an “essential partner” in political reforms and called her recent detention and trial “completely unacceptable.” She was transferred from house arrest to prison on politically motivated charges in mid-May. She has spent more than 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest.

Other human rights defenders in prison include labor activist Su Su Nway, former student leader Min Ko Naing, and activist monk U Gambira. The military government has also unfairly tried and imprisoned at least 21 community aid workers who sought to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis, including Burma’s most famous comedian, Zargana, who received a 35-year sentence, reduced from 59 years.

“Time and again, the UN has politely requested Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, but her ‘release’ back to house arrest would be a huge failure,” said Roth. “Secretary-General Ban’s last visit followed Cyclone Nargis, yet the aid workers, including the comedian Zargana, who were jailed for criticizing the government’s handling of the crisis, are still not free.”

Burma’s military government has announced elections for 2010 as the next step in a sham political process that has dragged on for more than 15 years. Yet under current conditions credible elections are impossible, as many opposition leaders are in prison, many offices of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy have been forcibly closed, and freedoms of expression, assembly, and association have been sharply curtailed.

Human Rights Watch said that Ban should press the military government to lift immediately the restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association in order for there to be any possibility that the 2010 elections could be considered credible. He should insist on a genuine process in which all political parties and ethnic groups can freely participate.

Human Rights Watch also urged Ban to express deep concern about rising ethnic tensions in border areas in the lead-up to the elections and to remind the government firmly of its responsibility to respect international human rights and humanitarian law. In recent weeks, Burmese military offensives have driven more than 4,000 ethnic Karen civilians into neighboring Thailand. Increasing tensions between the Burmese army and armed ethnic groups are evidence of the overall failure of the national reform process.

The Burmese government should make a public commitment to end the continued persecution of Burma’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, whose members the government has long refused to recognize as Burmese citizens.

The UN’s recent efforts at mediation between the government and the National League for Democracy have not produced any concrete results. Ibrahim Gambari, the current special adviser on Burma for the UN secretary-general, has visited Burma several times, and his most recent trip was to organize Ban’s visit.

“There is a real danger that Burma’s generals will try to use Ban’s visit to legitimize the 2010 elections,” said Roth. “If no commitments for reform are made, Ban should clearly and publicly state that a process that mocks the very idea of fundamental freedoms and democracy will have no legitimacy. His voice could be a real call to action for the UN Security Council and regional bodies that have thus far failed the Burmese people."

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