(New York) – Burma's human rights situation declined in 2014, setting back progress made since the reform process began three years ago, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015. Donors and influential governments have done little to pressure the army and government to keep reforms on track.
The military-dominated government repressed ethnic Rohingya Muslims, curtailed burgeoning media freedoms, and blocked crucial constitutional changes in advance of the planned 2015 elections.
“After two years of steady if uneven progress, Burma’s human rights situation was a car crash in 2014,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The army is still calling the shots on major issues, while the government seems confident it has satisfied other countries to keep the aid and investment dollars flowing.”
In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.
As the government’s systematic repression of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s western Arakan State continued, the situation for 140,000 internally displaced Rohingya forced from their homes during the “ethnic cleansing” campaign in 2012 was especially dire. The nationwide census in March-April 2014 did not permit Rohingya to self-identify as such. According to results released in September, 1.2 million people in Arakan State were not included.
The number of Rohingya fleeing Arakan State by boat rose dramatically in 2014, with estimates suggesting that 50,000-100,000 have fled since the start of 2013. In October 2014, the government’s secret Rakhine [Arakan] State Action Plan for long-term development was leaked. The plan calls for the forced relocation of all Rohingya camps to unspecified sites and strict eligibility requirements for citizenship under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. Those deemed ineligible would remain stateless, be sent to camps, and face possible deportation.
The authorities backtracked on media reforms, passing laws curtailing media freedoms, unjustly convicting five journalists and an editor, and intimidating several publications over their content. A journalist taken into military custody in September 2014 in eastern Mon State died after apparent torture.
Despite large-scale political prisoner releases in Burma over the past three years, an estimated 27 to 72 remain. The authorities arrested increasing numbers of peaceful protesters under the flawed Peaceful Procession Law, particularly those demonstrating against illegal land grabs.
Legislation was introduced in 2014 that promotes Buddhism over other religions, including state control over religious conversion, inter-faith marriage, polygamy, and family planning. Ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk organizations created a climate of fear for threatened Burmese groups that criticized the proposed laws.
The army and government dismissed calls to amend the 2008 constitution, especially sections on eligibility for the presidency and the military quota of 25 percent of parliamentary seats. This called into question the possibility of free and fair elections in 2015 and the establishment of a democratic government.
“Burmese authorities and donors are sleepwalking arm-in-arm into an electoral disaster in 2015,” Adams said. “Unless constitutional changes are made, the donors will wake up after election day to a government still controlled by the military. They need to press now for real human rights and democratic reforms.”