(New York) - US and Southeast Asian leaders meeting in New York this week should press the Burmese government to end an escalating campaign of repression, release political prisoners, and begin a dialogue with opposition groups ahead of Burma's coming flawed elections, Human Rights Watch said today. September marks the third anniversary of the brutal 2007 crackdown on peaceful protests led by monks and known as the "Saffron Revolution."
US President Barack Obama and leaders of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a summit in New York on September 24, 2010, the eve of the annual United Nations General Assembly.
"Three years ago, world leaders meeting at the United Nations expressed outrage and repugnance over the brutal use of force to disperse Buddhist monks and other protestors in Burma," said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This summit is an opportunity for the US and ASEAN leaders to send a clear message to Burma's rulers that their intransigence, denial of basic freedoms and cynical election manipulation harm the region's progress."
Burma's first elections in 20 years are scheduled to take place on November 7. However, repression continues ahead of the elections, with the state-run media warning people advocating for a boycott of the elections that they face prison for trying to disrupt the process. Groups of National League for Democracy (NLD) members have been touring Burma urging citizens to boycott the vote. Electoral laws released in March have effectively sidelined much of the opposition, including the recently outlawed NLD which overwhelmingly won the 1990 elections, and its incarcerated leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Political prisoners are deemed criminals and are unable to even cast a ballot.
The military will have reserved seats in all three levels of parliaments: national lower and upper houses, and in 14 regional assemblies. The ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) formed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by the current Prime Minister Thein Sein and dozens of recently retired senior officers will contest all of the 1,168 seats up for voting. Other parties will only have the resources and finances to field far few candidates. Sharp curbs on freedom of expression, assembly, and association will tightly control the campaigning. The elections fall far short of international standards.
Recent statements by ASEAN leaders regarding the elections have done little to press the Burmese leadership to conduct genuine polls. During the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in July, ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan claimed that ASEAN ministers gave the Burmese foreign minister Nyan Win "an earful" of criticism about the elections. Yet the official statement by current ASEAN chair Vietnam, "reiterated the importance of holding the general election in a free, fair, and inclusive manner which would lay the foundation for the long term stability and prosperity of Myanmar...(the ASEAN ministers) welcomed ASEAN's readiness to extend their support to Myanmar and reaffirmed their commitment to remain constructively engaged with Myanmar." Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, said, "Once the generals take off their uniforms and they've got to win votes and kiss babies and attend to local needs, the behavior will change and the economy will gradually open up."
"ASEAN should be raising the bar on democracy in Southeast Asia, not lowering it," Richardson said. "And if the US really wants to claim a positive, constructive return to Southeast Asia, it needs to place justice and human rights at the core of its ASEAN agenda."
Human Rights Watch pointed out that ASEAN's summit coincides with the third anniversary of the crackdown that began on September 26, 2007. In the following weeks, Buddhist monks in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other towns across Burma staged peaceful marches to protest government policies and poor living standards. Lay supporters gradually joined the marches, swelling to tens of thousands of people calling for political, economic and social reforms. In the most extensive documentation of the crackdown to date, Human Rights Watch and the former United Nations special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, documented at least 20 extrajudicial killings during the crackdown, but both believe the death toll is much higher. Despite widespread calls for an open and impartial investigation into the violence, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) have never convened an investigation.
Human Rights Watch calls on the US and ASEAN leaders to press Burma's Prime Minister Thein Sein, who will be attending the summit, for the immediate and unconditional release of more than 2,100 political prisoners, half of whom were arrested following demonstrations in August and September 2007, and sentenced to outrageously long prison terms in a series of closed trials in late 2008.
"Release of political prisoners is one of the touchstones for a credible election, and on this measure the Burmese junta fails," Richardson said. "The only way to seize the minds of the generals, those still serving and the recently retired ones preparing for their new roles as parliamentarians, is to close ranks against the ongoing repression in Burma."
Human Rights Watch pressed the US government to call on ASEAN leaders to support growing calls for a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. In March, the current UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called for the establishment of a high level CoI to investigate serious crimes in Burma in his annual report to the Human Rights Council. To date, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have publicly supported the forming of a CoI. Human Rights Watch has called on leaders attending the UN General Assembly to support the proposal in the upcoming session of the GA. During a general debate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 17, the Burmese ambassador U Wunna Maung Lwin said, "There were no crimes against humanity in Myanmar...(w)ith regard to the issue of impunity, any member of the military who breached national law was subject to legal punishments...there was no need to conduct investigations in Myanmar since there were no human rights violations there."
"Ending impunity and building peace in Burma require justice, not a deliberately manipulated election," said Richardson. "It's time for those who express outrage to match the SPDC's intransigence with a unified call for a credible inquiry into widespread and systematic violations of international law in Burma."
Human Rights Watch's campaign, "2100 in 2010: Free Burma's Political Prisoners," aims to increase international awareness and pressure for the release of all political prisoners in Burma before the elections.