(New York) - United Nations special envoy on Burma Vijay Nambiar should speak out against the absence of meaningful human rights reform in Burma since the November elections, Human Rights Watch said today.
Nambiar, the special advisor to the secretary-general for Myanmar, visits Burma from May 11 to 13, 2011, meeting in Rangoon and in the capital, Naypyidaw, with government officials, political parties, civil society organizations, and others. It is Nambiar's first visit to Burma since late November 2010, shortly after deeply flawed elections on November 7 and the release days later of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The UN and Nambiar should not allow his visit to be misused by the government to shore up its credibility on human rights in the absence of meaningful progress," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Should Nambiar fail to speak clearly about the need for meaningful reforms, the government will simply spin his visit to justify their abusive practices."
Human Rights Watch urged Nambiar to press the government to immediately improve the human rights situation in Burma by releasing the country's more than 2,000 political prisoners, ending attacks on civilians in armed conflict areas, and by removing unnecessary restrictions on domestic and international humanitarian agencies. Human Rights Watch's campaign "Behind Bars: Free Burma's Political Prisoners" seeks to secure the release of all political detainees in Burma.
Nambiar should also urge the government to permit the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, to visit Burma. Quintana has been denied access since February 2010, including just a few weeks before Nambiar was granted permission.
The new parliament, which formally took control on March 30, is dominated by the military-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDA). The new president, former Prime Minister Thein Sein, in his inaugural speech, highlighted his administration's focus on education, corruption, and opening the economy. Ministers effectively ignored questions in parliament urging the release of political prisoners.
Countries should not let Burma skirt human rights concerns because of a nominal change in government, Human Rights Watch said.
At the May 8-9 ASEAN summit in Jakarta, President Thein Sein requested Burma assume the chair of the regional grouping in 2014. Instead of rejecting the request outright, the decision was deferred until later this year. In his closing statement as summit chair, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said, "Myanmar, which is the focus of world attention, is expected to continue progress on democracy so when it becomes chair it does not generate negative views."
"The new Burmese government is on a desperate charm offensive to convince the world it's a rights-respecting democracy, despite all evidence to the contrary," said Pearson. "The UN should use this visit to set the record straight and get genuine concessions from the government on political prisoners, ending military abuses, and humanitarian access."
Attacks on civilians in ethnic conflict zones have intensified following the November elections. As a result of fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic Karen insurgents in eastern Karen State since November, more than 20,000 civilians have been displaced, with more than 10,000 refugees arriving in neighboring Thailand.
Human Rights Watch has documented how the army has forced prisoners to work as unpaid porters in combat zones; those considered weak or insubordinate face torture and even summary execution. In northern Shan State, the government, after ending its 22-year ceasefire agreement with the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) in March, carried out offensive operations that displaced more than 3,000 civilians. There are credible reports from local monitoring groups that Burma army units have indiscriminately shelled villages, taken civilians for forced labor or human shields, and in some instances committed sexual violence against ethnic Shan women.
Human Rights Watch called on Nambiar to publicly support the formation of an international commission of inquiry into longstanding reports of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Burma.
"Nambiar should not simply pay a courtesy call to Burma's leaders, but instead should generate support from officials, political parties, and ethnic groups for a commission of inquiry," Pearson said. "Such an inquiry is an avenue to justice for victims of decades of abuses and will help end the culture of impunity that prevails throughout Burma's government and army."