Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
Government House
Pitsanulok Road, Dusit
Bangkok 10300

Re: Situation in Burma

Dear Prime Minister,

We write to you about the human rights and political situation in Burma. We believe that Thailand, as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Burma’s major political and economic partner, has significant leverage and policy options that can help improve respect for human rights and promote political reform in Burma.

As the recent trip of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demonstrates, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is becoming increasingly belligerent to international efforts to assist Burma’s long-delayed political reforms. The role of ASEAN and Thailand to lead principled international engagement on political, security, and humanitarian issues in Burma is urgently needed.

Despite many promises by the SPDC for a democratic transition, Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. There are strict limits on basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffer in Burma’s squalid prisons. These prisoners include Aung San Suu Kyi and many members of the political opposition, courageous protestors who peacefully took to the streets in August and September 2007, and individuals who criticized the government for its poor response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. The implementation of the so-called “roadmap,” including the 2008 constitutional referendum, has a clear aim towards a stage-managed electoral process that will ensure continued military rule with a civilian façade.

At the same time, government abuses in ethnic minority areas continue. There is overwhelming evidence of the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, the use of forced labor, forced relocation, summary killings, rape, and other abuses against ethnic populations by the Burmese armed forces and its proxies in the context of military operations.

Corruption and mismanagement have meant that under military rule Burma has become one of the poorest and most unstable countries in Asia. While receiving an estimated US$150 million per month in gas export revenue in 2008, the Burmese government has done almost nothing to improve the basic welfare of its people. Hardship sparked a series of demonstrations and arrests. Protests by Buddhist monks and civilians in August and September 2007 against the government’s decision to raise fuel prices were brutally crushed by the Burmese security forces and pro-government thugs from the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and a civilian paramilitary group called Swan Ar Shin.

On June 26, 2009, during an official visit to China you rightly pointed out that “the international community can only get access [to Burma] through the role of neighbors like Thailand that continue to engage with” Burma. The international community relies on Burma’s neighbors like Thailand to contribute constructively to the national reconciliation process, a peaceful transition to democratic rule, and the improvement of human rights in Burma. However, there should be no wishful thinking that conciliatory talks from Thailand and others will somehow cause the SPDC to soften its stance. Thailand needs a bolder approach in dealing with Burma to show that engagement with Burma can produce concrete results, not empty promises. We welcome your statement as ASEAN’s chairman calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, which demonstrated that ASEAN would no longer protect Burma from international pressure.

As the current Chair of ASEAN, Thailand should take Burma to task for breaching the ASEAN Charter on human rights and democratic values. We recognize the widespread frustration among ASEAN member states over the intransigence of the SPDC in multilateral forums, and urge you to find ways to end their spoiling tactics. You should candidly point out that Burma’s scheduled 2010 general election will not be regarded as remotely credible without the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, without the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political parties being able to campaign freely, and without the lifting of political repression that has been going on for decades.

On July 13, the Burmese government stated that it is “processing to grant amnesty to prisoners on humanitarian grounds and with a view to enabling them to participate in the 2010 general elections.” We call on you to seek firm details from your Burmese counterparts regarding how many political prisoners will be entitled to such an amnesty and when the release will take place. In the past, thousands of convicted criminals have been released, but among them only a handful of political prisoners. Anything short of the release of all 2,100 political prisoners will be unacceptable to the international community.

Decades of unabated repression and misrule have driven millions of Burmese to seek refuge and better living conditions in Thailand and other neighboring countries. Thailand has borne a great burden in hosting Burmese migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. You have an opportunity to end the embarrassing record of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose administration increased the arrest and intimidation of Burmese activists living in Thailand, and pressured the UN High Commissioner on Refugees to suspend screening of new asylum seekers from Burma in January 2004.

We urge Thailand to respect its obligation under international law not to refoul (forcibly return) 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, prior to deportation or forced return. All migrants wishing to apply for asylum should have the practical means to do so and not be barred from making such application by Thai authorities.

Thailand’s treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers from Burma, as evidenced recently in the furor concerning the Rohingya boat people, has subjected Thailand to international scrutiny. We urge you to protect the rights of Burmese refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Thailand, especially when there has been no tangible improvement in the abysmal conditions causing them to flee Burma. The positive response by Thai authorities to recent refugee arrivals in Ta Song Yang district of Tak province during fighting along the border in June shows that Thailand can accept asylum seekers, facilitate humanitarian assistance to people fleeing conflict and safeguard its territorial integrity.

We have learned that Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has talked to ethnic populations along the Thai-Burmese border several times to convince them to enter ceasefire dialogues with the Burmese government. While acknowledging that the end of armed conflicts between the Burmese government and ethnic populations can help reduce conditions that push refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to come to Thailand, we urge you not to pressure those ethnic populations to reach agreements with the SPDC without concrete assurances from the Burmese government about their basic rights and freedoms. Otherwise, this will only put the lives of these populations in greater danger, and continue to adversely affect Thailand’s border security. In this light, we also remind you that an end to fighting in Burma does not in itself mean an end to political, ethnic, and other persecution.

As you are aware, in the context of large-scale infrastructure projects, the Burmese military has a long record of carrying out serious abuses, including forced relocations of civilians and forced labor. In addition, there are credible reports of serious abuses by Burmese government agents in the context of a variety of other sectors, such as mining and logging. Some of these projects receive foreign investment, including from Thailand. In this light, we urge you to put human rights safeguards over investment projects of Thai companies in Burma and suspend those projects that fail to ensure sufficient assessment of human rights and environmental impacts.

We do not underestimate the challenge that you will face in addressing these issues with your Burmese counterparts. But we think Thailand has unique leverage that can make a significant difference in Burma in the years ahead.

We look forward to your attention to these matters of concern.

Yours Sincerely,

Brad Adams
Executive Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch