Dear Premier Wen,
In anticipation of your trip to Burma on June 2, we write to you about the human rights and political situation there. We believe that the People's Republic of China has one of the most important bilateral relations with Burma, as a significant trading, investment and diplomatic partner, and Burma's largest neighbor. Your government thus, is in an important position to propose and press for national and regional policies that can improve respect for human rights and promote political reform in Burma. Burma has rebuffed and rejected such efforts for years, including numerous United Nations mediation missions.
Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, ruled by the military-controlled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). There are strict limits on the rights to basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The intelligence and security services are omnipresent. Censorship is draconian. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffer in Burma's squalid prisons. All have been sentenced after unfair trials, which often take the form of summary hearings held in the prisons themselves.
At the same time, military abuses connected to armed conflicts continue in ethnic minority areas. For many years, Human Rights Watch has documented the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, the use of forced labor, and summary killings, rape, and other abuses against minority populations, including the Rohingya, Chin, Shan, Karen, and Karenni.
Burma has also committed widespread violations that have caused thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims to leave western Burma to seek refuge in Bangladesh, and many thousands flee every year in boats to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In August 2009, more than 37,000 ethnic Kokang people fled into China's Yunnan province following fighting between the Burmese military and the ethnic militia of Shan State Special Region 1.
In addition to rampant violations of civil and political rights, corruption and mismanagement under military rule has made Burma one of the poorest countries in Asia. The government seems to care little for the basic welfare of its people: for instance, while the Burmese government received an estimated US$150 million per month in gas export revenue in 2008, its last announced annual budget to address its AIDS crisis in 2007 was a mere US$172,000.
While much of the world sees Burma's rulers as isolated, ruthless, and despised, the SPDC continues to have influential friends in the region who provide resources through the purchase of energy and other commodities, and shield Burma from concerted action at the UN, ASEAN, and other international fora on subjects like implementing effective arms embargoes or targeted sanctions.
The Chinese government routinely asserts that it follows a policy of non-interference in the "internal affairs" of sovereign states. However, the rampant rights violations ongoing inside Burma are creating severe internal pressures which could easily spill over Burma's borders and affect China's stability in terms of refugee flows, public health crises, and violence. In this regard, China's "good neighbor" policy with Burma should involve speaking frankly with the Burmese government about its human rights abuses and include recommendations and assistance to address them.
At key junctures the Chinese government has obstructed international action that could have significantly improved human rights, appearing to preference Chinese economic interests and demonstrate disregard for international law and institutions. We call on your government to play a more positive international leadership role to press for productive change in Burma. We recommend that the Chinese government's policy should, therefore, aim at addressing three important avenues of engaging with Burma: the 2010 elections, diplomacy, and more productive trade relations.
The 2010 Elections
Despite the frequent and longstanding calls from concerned governments and the United Nations for credible inclusive elections, the polls planned for Burma in 2010 are a blueprint for further repressive rule, social division, and potential instability in Burma-all of which has a deleterious effect on human rights. Consequently, they are unlikely to achieve your government's aspirations, and endorsing them as a forward step for Burma will not improve the situation inside the country.
The 2008 constitution contains provisions designed to ensure military dominance in any civilian administration, with a quarter of all parliamentary seats set aside for serving military officers, and reservation of key ministerial portfolios for the military.
Electoral laws limit the participation of longstanding opponents of military rule by forcing political parties, on pain of de-registration, to expel any members currently serving prison sentences. The fact that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party that overwhelmingly won the last elections in 1990, demurred from contesting the elections in 2010 demonstrates how tightly controlled the process is.
Many provisions of the electoral laws fall far short of international standards for a free and fair election. The 17-member Electoral Commission, which rules on political party registration and candidates, is not independent or impartial. Nearly 40 parties have already registered and been accepted, many of them either controlled by the Burmese military, or effectively proxy parties for the government.
In China's last high-level visit to Burma, Vice President Xi Jinping in December 2009 relayed to President Than Shwe that China wanted to see "political stability, economic development and national reconciliation." These are not controversial aspirations, but Human Rights Watch firmly believes that the current direction of the electoral process will produce more division, disharmony, and uncertainty in Burma, not lead to a gradually improving process of reconciliation, peace-building and development.
Insecurity in Border Areas
The Chinese government should recognize the genuine grievances felt by the ethnic minority populations in Burma, particularly the ethnic Kachin and Wa. The possibility of armed hostilities along the Burma-China border, after two decades of relative peace, is quite real, as are refugee flows as a result of conflict that would dwarf the incident of August 2009 in Kokang. The complete failure of the SPDC to seek genuine reconciliation and regional development in Burma has fostered this instability. China's mediating role in averting conflict is noted, but we urge your government to take a more overt and public role in supporting peace-building initiatives in Burma along with the United Nations and other concerned states.
We note China's important role in the Security Council working group on children and armed conflict and its support for UN Security Council Resolutions 1612 (2005) and 1882 (2009). We draw your attention to the UN secretary-general's latest report of April 2010 that continues to list the Burmese military as a party that commits grave violations against children in war, including the continued recruitment and use of child soldiers. We also note that the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Myanmar called in his March 2010 report to the Human Rights Council for the UN to consider forming a UN commission of inquiry into allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. We urge China to support such an inquiry in the UN General Assembly-China will not be considered a positive force in the international community if it does not actively participate in efforts to bring an end to serious violations of human rights and the laws of war during armed conflicts.
Regional Engagement and Diplomacy
On key political matters in Burma, the Chinese government does not appear to be engaged in constructive, proactive regional diplomacy, and in some instances has undermined those efforts. China has been reluctant to join in efforts by the UN Security Council to exert pressure on Burma to improve respect for human rights, even employing a veto to block a Security Council resolution on the human rights situation in Burma in January 2007.
At times, the SPDC has used diplomatic maneuvering to delay and pretend that it was engaged in serious inter-governmental discussions. China's membership in the Group of Friends of Myanmar bestows on your government a leadership role in these high-level discussions and the opportunity to push the Security Council to press the SPDC to institute genuine reforms. Unfortunately, thus far the Group of Friends has not adopted a clear line on how to engage the SPDC. Human Rights Watch believes that a more assertive grouping should be formed, to converge the views and policies of China, India, Japan, the EU and US, and ASEAN states, and gradually minimize the ability of the SPDC to play states off against each other.
Since the UN has long been the focal point for diplomacy on Burma, we urge China to support the continuation of a special envoy of the secretary-general. But it is crucial that the secretary-general and the special envoy not get diverted into the diplomatic game of considering access or high-level meetings as a sufficient sign of progress. The envoy must be an individual with the principles, skills, and backing of the international community to make an impact. China should support the appointment of a permanent replacement to former envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, who has the integrity and skills to exert pressure on the SPDC while also building a strong, clear line in Asia and the West about their approaches to Burma.
China should be concerned over increasing defense links between Burma and North Korea which undermines international peace and security. We remind you of China's obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009) to ensure that North Korea's proliferation does not affect Burma. China has provided significant amounts of military aid to Burma since 1989. To help end the use of military weaponry in human rights violations in Burma, China should end all its arms sales and military support to the SPDC, and support such an arms embargo through the UN Security Council.
We feel it is important to note the positive developments for human rights that China has made in certain international situations: the appointment of a special ambassador for Darfur, who played an important role in urging the Sudanese government to let international peacekeepers deploy in the area, and the sanctions, albeit limited, that China agreed to support on some North Korean individuals.
China could also consider the appointment of its own special ambassador or envoy to Burma in order to deal directly with Burmese military officials and to consult with the UN special envoy and other state-designated Burma envoys such as the EU Burma envoy and the proposed United States envoy.
Trade and Investment Relations
Until a more representative government that respects basic rights is in place in Burma, Human Rights Watch urges governments and companies to refrain from any new investments in sectors of Burma's economy that substantially benefit the military or are otherwise associated with serious human rights abuses. Investments in the energy sector are particularly troubling, given the track record of serious abuses associated with previous oil and gas projects in Burma that given rise to concerns that new projects will contribute to the use of forced labor, illegal land confiscation, forced displacement, and unnecessary use of force against civilians. Moreover, the SPDC fails to use available revenue from petroleum projects in a manner to address the economic and social rights shortcomings of the population who suffer needless poverty and neglect. Although the SPDC has accrued more than US$5 billion in foreign reserves, largely derived from sales of natural gas sales through the Yadana and Yetagun projects in southern Burma, Human Rights Watch has concerns that little, if any, of these funds have been used for desperately needed health and education programs, or the reconstruction of the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis.
China has major economic ties to Burma, from a growing bilateral border trade and investments in major hydroelectric and petroleum projects. Bilateral trade between Burma and China is nearly US$3 billion per year, and border trade is growing rapidly. The overall volume of trade is anticipated to increase dramatically as a result of a massive energy deal between the two countries. In addition, PetroChina, the publicly-listed arm of the majority state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), signed a December 2008 contract to purchase the natural gas from the Shwe fields off the coast of Arakan state. More recently, CNPC has reportedly begun constructing what will ultimately be two major energy pipelines across Burma to China, in one case to transport the Shwe gas. The twin pipelines represent some of the biggest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Burma.
We are concerned about the impact on the Burmese population of these massive petroleum projects and large hydro-electric power projects that Chinese companies also are involved with in Burma. Human Rights Watch's position is that companies doing business in Burma should ensure their operations do not contribute to or benefit from human rights abuses. Since late 2007 we have called on companies to cease investments in economic sectors alleged to be associated with human rights violations in Burma. We have called on those already involved in such investments by that date to conduct thorough and independent human rights impact assessments, make the results of such assessments public, and be prepared to reconsider their investments and operations in the country based on the outcome of the assessments as well as further developments in Burma.
Helping the Burmese people is one of the most difficult and intractable problems the world has faced in recent decades. China can play a far more productive long-term role if it works with other members of the international community to foster genuine change in Burma.
We wish you a productive trip and look forward to discussing these issues with you or your staff at your convenience.
Acting Asia Director
Human Rights Watch