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(New York) ) – Burma’s new government showed signs of change in 2011, but failed to seriously address the still dire human rights situation in the country, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. The government followed up on this progress in early 2012 by releasing several hundred political prisoners.

The new government, comprised mostly of former generals, convened national and state and regional parliaments twice in 2011, enacting laws on freedom of assembly and forming trade unions, and eased official media censorship. The government promised to improve democratic governance, respect human rights, and institute legal, economic, and social reforms. However, Human Rights Watch said that changes and welcome switch in rhetoric did not address ongoing, serious human rights violations in the country, especially abuses related to the long-running civil armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas.

“Releasing key political prisoners was a crucial step and Burma’s government has voiced promises to reform, but it must also address decades of gross human rights violations,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “2011 may have been a year for cautious optimism, but there was no measurable decline in serious abuses, and enacting new laws is not a substitute for respecting the rule of law.”

In the 676-page World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

In December, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi re-registered her party, the National League for Democracy, and announced plans to contest scheduled by-elections in April 2012. Suu Kyi met with senior government leaders, including President Thein Sein, and expressed support for the government’s proposed reforms.

Two government amnesties, in May and October respectively, released an estimated 316 political prisoners. In January 2012, 651 prisoners were released, among them at least 287 political prisoners including prominent members of the 88 Generation students movement – which led the 1988 uprising against the military junta – monk leaders, and journalists. Nevertheless, Burma continued to imprison hundreds for peaceful acts of free expression. Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to agree to an independent international mechanism to access prisons and publicly report on the whereabouts and condition of remaining political prisoners.

In January 2012, the Burmese government entered into separate preliminary ceasefire talks with the Karen National Union and the Kachin Independence Organization. Several other ethnic armed groups agreed to ceasefires or talks with the government in late 2011, such as the Shan State Army-South and the United Wa State Army.

Human Rights Watch said that the Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, beatings, abusive forced labor, antipersonnel landmines, and pillaging of property, particularly in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States. Burmese army units in Karen State forced convicts to work as porters in ongoing operations in combat zones, mistreating them through beatings, torture, and use as “human shields” to deter attacks or clear antipersonnel landmines. The army continues to actively recruit and use child soldiers, even as the government cooperates with the International Labour Organization on demobilizing child soldiers. Ethnic armed groups have also been implicated in serious abuses, such as recruiting child soldiers and using antipersonnel landmines around civilian areas.

In Kachin State, more than 50,000 civilians were internally displaced by fighting since June, fleeing Burmese army abuses such as forced labor, extrajudicial killings, and attacks on civilian areas, with several thousand seeking refuge in China. In December, President Thein Sein publicly called for the Burmese army to cease attacks against the Kachin Independence Army, but fighting in northern Burma has continued. In January 2012, he is reported to have repeated the request with respect to attacks in all ethnic areas.

“The government’s commitment to a genuinely inclusive political system will be tested in the April by-elections,” Pearson said. “To show it’s serious about ending rights violations, the government should also permit an independent international mechanism to investigate alleged abuses.”

In 2011, Burma’s pledges of reform resulted in visits from several Western foreign ministers and envoys to meet with senior members of government and opposition leaders. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) granted Burma the chair of the grouping for 2014.

“The flurry of diplomatic visits to Burma shouldn’t detract from the challenges that lie ahead,” Pearson said. “If 2011 was the year of promises, 2012 is the year Burma’s government needs to end the country’s culture of impunity, release all remaining political prisoners, and  demonstrate through actions that it respects human rights.”


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