The Burmese military officially handed power to a civilian government on March 30, days after the army it celebrated its 66th Anniversary on March 27, having been in power in one incarnation or another for 51 of those past 66 years.
Though some wear rose colored glasses and would like to view the recent elections as a positive step, it is hard to see how rigged elections and a new "civilian" government led by former soldiers who exchanged a uniform for a suit is a sign of progress. Indeed, the new ‘military-parliamentary complex' in Burma has delivered no structural improvements in the lives of Burmese. While the military has held sham elections and rammed through a new constitution, and has convened a nominally new and elected government, the human rights situation in Burma remains dire.
In January, Burma completed its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a Human Rights Council procedure in which the country's human rights situation is reviewed every four years by member states of the United Nations. It was a typically obdurate performance from Burmese officials, laced with frequent absurdity. Presented by Burma's new Attorney-General, the smooth-talking Dr. Tun Shin, the Burmese delegation gave a Monty Python-like defense whose central comedic device was total denial.
Among the highlights: the November 2010 elections were "free and fair" (all evidence to the contrary). There are no political prisoners in Burma, just criminals (there are actually more than 2,200 dissidents in prison, sentenced under laws that criminalize peaceful activities). If there are political prisoners, they are not tortured (torture is endemic in Burmese prisons). There is no media censorship, just look at all the newspapers, magazines and television stations! (censorship is longstanding and systematic, with tv and radio giving fawning coverage of the daily schedule and immense achievements of senior generals). The judiciary is impartial (only in so far as the interests of the military and their cronies are not endangered, and rarely if ever apart from that).
Perhaps the darkest of jokes was the assertion that education and health expenditure in Burma is increasing. This may technically be true - it is hard to know, given the fact that no one knows what the actual national budget is, but the government's paltry outlay on basic services (six percent) is dwarfed by its military expenditure (a quarter of the budget) and doesn't take into account the billions of dollars in natural gas revenues squirreled away in offshore bank accounts. Western humanitarian aid donors account for most of the assistance to Burma's desperate health crisis, a disaster wrought largely by decades of central government neglect. Few governments do as little to address the basic needs of their people.
The most surreal segments of the review involved the country's long running civil war, in fact the world's most enduring internal conflict: 63 of the past 66 years the Burmese army has been fighting ethnic and communist insurgents. There are more than 17 non-state ethnic armed groups in Burma, most with tentative ceasefires that have been fighting against central government rule since independence in 1948. Yet Dr. Tun Shin had the audacity to claim that Burma "has never been in a situation of armed conflict." In the Burmese government's worldview, during this supposed "non-conflict," the Burmese army apparently does not attack ethnic populations, or commit rape against women, or force civilians to be army porters. And while Dr. Tun Shin correctly asserted that child soldier recruitment is illegal, he failed to note that the military high command has put pressure on some 500 army battalions to replenish troop recruitment throughout Burma "any way they can."
Evidence disputing the Burmese official line is on display every day. In a renewed offensive against ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Burma that started just days after the November 2010 elections, Burmese army units are targeting civilians in several towns with artillery and small arms fire. The army has taken dozens as forced porters to carry supplies and act as scouts, exposing them to landmines and ambush. Thousands of people have fled for safety to neighboring Thailand. In addition, the army has press-ganged hundreds of convicts from prisons throughout Burma to act as porters and human minesweepers during the offensive. The survivors have horrific tales of torture, executions, and being caught in the crossfire of ferocious armed combat. In addition, fierce fighting has been raging in Northern Shan State against ethnic Shan rebels who keep asserting they want peaceful negotiations.
Years of reports of violations of international law led the UN special rapporteur on Burma, Argentine lawyer Tomás Ojea Quintana, to call for a UN commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes and the systemic impunity that supports them. So far 16 countries have publicly supported the call, while many in the international community have adopted a wait-and-see approach for signs of improvement after the elections.
Many governments at the UPR called on Burma to form a national human rights commission in line with international standards, and the Burmese delegation assured the Council that it was pursuing just that. Dr. Tun Shin heads Burma's current human rights body. He claimed it is investigating over 500 reports of human rights violations, but gave few details. He played the game of saying that the government has not "exhausted local remedies" to address abuses as a shield against international measures.
Burma is trying to haggle for more time to improve its human rights record on the premise that it is building a new democracy and a civilian government is now in place. But the November 2010 elections were a farcical attempt at legitimizing and preserving future military control. The new constitution is full of provisions that appear in line with international standards-as the constitutions of dictatorships often are--but with caveats that assert the power of the military in all matters. The government cites various forms of engagement with the UN as evidence of progress on human rights. But it's all transparently empty.
UN member states should not allow the Burmese government to make a mockery of human rights standards anymore. Public exercises like the UPR lay bare the mendacity of the Burmese leadership and also exposes the failings of the international community to defend the rights of victims and to hold Burma's rulers accountable for their actions. The government clearly thinks it can get away with offering perfunctory cooperation on a few issues, denying the horrific human rights reality on the ground, to gain international legitimacy for its drive towards what it calls "disciplined democracy."
Thailand as the current president of the UN Human Rights Council, and ASEAN bearing the long burden of defending its most recalcitrant member, must not be taken in by Dr Tun Shin's chicanery. To be fooled by this only emboldens the Burmese military and helps avert stronger measures, like a UN commission of inquiry, that offer the best chance of providing justice and redress to the victims of human rights abuses inside Burma today.
David Scott Mathieson is Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch