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Burma: Ban Should Press for Lasting Reforms

Secretary-General’s Visit Should Highlight Political Prisoners, Conflict Abuses

(New York) – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should emphasize the need for genuine reforms to address Burma’s still dire human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. Ban will visit Burma for several days beginning April 29, 2012 to discuss with Burmese officials a range of issues including political reform, development and humanitarian needs, and refugee issues.

Human Rights Watch urged Ban to press publicly and privately for the release of all remaining political prisoners and the creation of an independent review board to verify and report on those still imprisoned, an end to abuses in ethnic conflict areas, and a field presence in Burma for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.

“Secretary-General Ban is right to be encouraged by recent signs of change in Burma, but that optimism sours when you factor in ongoing human rights abuses,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is much for the UN to do to nurture the process, but Ban’s priorities should include pushing for the release of all political prisoners and an end to rights abuses in ethnic areas.”

“Many challenges lie ahead,” Ban told reporters April 24. “Many concerns have yet to be addressed. Yet I am convinced that we have an unprecedented opportunity to help the country advance toward a better future.” During his last visit to Burma, in July 2009, he was not permitted to visit the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, then under house arrest, and had concluded that the trip was “deeply disappointing.”

Over the past year the Burmese government has released a significant number of political prisoners, which has long been a priority of the secretary-general and the international community. In four amnesties announced by President Thein Sein, in May and October 2011 and twice in January 2012, the government released an estimated 659 political prisoners. Estimates vary on remaining numbers, but hundreds are believed to be behind bars. The Thai-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB) estimates that there are still 473 verified remaining political prisoners, with possibly 465 others unverified. A network of recently released political prisoners in Rangoon maintains a working list of 445 remaining prisoners.

The government contends that 120 remaining prisoners considered to be political prisoners by governments and human rights organizations have been convicted of security offenses or violent crimes. Given Burma’s opaque and often secretive legal system, those arrested on politically motivated grounds have routinely been prosecuted on criminal charges in closed proceedings, often without counsel or the opportunity to present a defense. Judges in Burma lack independence.

Several political prisoner cases Ban should raise with Burmese officials include:

・ U Myint Aye, a co-founder of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network, who was arrested in 2008 and charged with a range of offenses including explosives, unlawful association, and immigration offenses. Sentenced to life in prison at a special court in Rangoon’s Insein prison, he is currently in Loikaw prison in Karenni state. His trial had serious irregularities, including sentences of four and six months in prison for two members of his legal team for alleged contempt of court for protesting the restrictive process.

・ Khun Kawrio, a 27-year-old ethnic Karenni youth activist, who was sentenced to 37 years in prison for protesting the 2008 constitutional referendum in his native state. He is in Meiktila prison in central Burma.

・ Thant Zaw, a 44-year-old student protester arrested in 1989 and sentenced to death, which was commuted to life in prison in 1993 for an alleged bombing incident. He was allegedly tortured in custody to confess to the crime. Although a civilian, he was tried by a closed military tribunal that did not meet international fair trial standards. Thant Zaw is in Thayet prison in the Magwe region. A prisoner who confessed to the same bombing and claims Thant Zaw is innocent has since been released.

・ Ko Aye Aung, a student protester involved in demonstrations in 1996 and 1998, who was sentenced to 59 years in prison. He is in Kale prison.

Ban should call on the Burmese government to establish a credible mechanism to resolve the issue of remaining political prisoners, such as a review board that would include representatives of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and members of Burmese civil society, as well as relevant Burmese government officials, Human Rights Watch said.

Such a board should have access to prisons, verify how many political prisoners remain, and review their charges and trial circumstances and report periodically and publicly on progress. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not been permitted unfettered access to prisons to interview political prisoners since 2006.

The secretary-general’s office appears to be playing down the political prisoner issue, Human Rights Watch said. The secretary general’s special envoy to Burma, Vijay Nambiar, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times (, failed to mention remaining political prisoners in the “four major concerns” he outlined for Ban Ki-moon’s visit.

“A year ago the Burmese government denied having any political prisoners, and now wants to take credit for releasing over 600 of them,” Pearson said. “If it’s serious about putting the issue to rest, the government needs to release all political prisoners and put mechanisms in place to prevent future unjust imprisonment.”

Human Rights Watch also urged Ban to raise concerns over ongoing abuses by the Burmese military in ethnic conflict areas. While the government is engaged in ceasefire talks with several ethnic armed groups, the Burmese army perpetrates atrocities against civilians in ethnic areas.

Fighting in Kachin state since June 2011 between government armed forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced an estimated 75,000 people, with 20,000 in government-controlled areas, 45,000 in conflict and rebel-controlled zones, and 10,000 seeking refuge across the border in China. Human Rights Watch documented abuses in the conflict in the recent report “Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State (

The Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law with extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, and pillage, and using abusive forced labor and antipersonnel landmines. The KIA has used child soldiers and landmines.

Since late March, UN agencies based in Rangoon have dispatched five relief convoys to displaced people in Kachin state, but this effort falls far short of growing humanitarian needs. Ban should urge the Burmese government and the KIA to ensure regular and unhindered access to the domestic and international humanitarian agencies, Human Rights Watch said. He should also press for an independent mechanism to investigate and report on allegations of abuses in ethnic conflict zones by all parties to the conflict.

“Ban’s visit should look beneath the patina of reform promises and address ongoing abuses in conflict zones, including restrictions on humanitarian access,” Pearson said. “Failing to speak out on abuses in Burma will only embolden abusive elements in the military and spoilers in the government who are not sincere about reform.”

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