The reforms initiated by President Thein Sein should be welcomed and supported, instead of the regime being criticised for what it still needs to achieve. At least that’s the message given by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on Burma – a wholly misguided one, given that the government has so far done nothing that is praiseworthy and that guarantees the rights, equality and freedoms of the people, regardless of their ethnic origins or religions.
The latest report by the ICG on Burma simply advocates for the 2014 ASEAN chairmanship for Burma and discourages the possible establishment of the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry into abuses in the country. The whole report portrayed the post-election landscape as one of significant and unprecedented progress towards a genuine democracy. The report is in fact an attempt to spin the regime as genuine reformists. Its call for international support for the USDP regime is a disgrace to the organisation.
If the post-election events are correctly reassessed, the reforms enacted by the so-called civilian government are a spurious and superficial attempt to lessen pressure from the international community. Under these ‘reforms’, the regime continues to oppress dissidents and escalates conflicts with ethnic opposition forces, causing hundreds of thousands of civilians to question their futures and the safety of their family members and possessions. While those Burmese in exile are urged to return home, nearly 2000 political prisoners jailed by the former junta remain incarcerated. If the Thein Sein-led government is truly civilian, democratic and a break from the past, there is no reason to continue detaining these political opponents.
Instead of granting an amnesty to the existing political prisoners, the Thein Sein regime continues to lock them up. Nevertheless, the ICG report failed to point out the USDP regime’s ongoing repressive tactics, such as the imprisonment of former army captain, Nay Myo Zin, and the extension by a decade of DVB journalist Sithu Zeya’s sentence. Nay Myo Zin, who volunteered for a blood donation group, was arrested shortly after the Thein Sein regime came to power and was detained without charge for nearly four months. Eventually, he was sentenced to 10 years under the Electronics Act in August for his alleged communications with the Voice of America and anti-regime bloggers. Sithu Zeya, who was already sentenced eight years, was also convicted under the Electronics Act. The serious omissions of these cases point out the traditional nature of bias on Burma reports published by the ICG.
The organisation’s misinformation regarding the returning of prominent exiles also undermines its credibility. The members of dance troupe Thee Lay Thee who recently returned to Burma are a fraction of the thousands of Burmese who remain exiled to fight for change, and will continue to unless concrete reform take place. Moreover, those who do return are reportedly required to sign an agreement stating that they will abstain from activities including communicating with outlawed organisations, distributing literature and making speeches that undermine the stability of the state. Such agreements indicate that the regime still denies Burmese the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Although a National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been formed, and claims to be independent, almost all of its members are former loyal servants of the military regime. They categorically deny that human rights abuses were committed by the junta. Until the Burmese NHRC joins the ASEAN National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) Forum and becomes fully compliant with the Paris Principles, the people of Burma cannot hope for their rights and freedoms. In light of this, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) must not be sidelined – the alleged crimes against humanity and the possible war crimes committed by the regime need to be revealed and appropriate actions undertaken. Only a UN commissioned body could properly perform such functions.
The talks between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the USDP regime, particularly the meeting with Thein Sein, are also not groundbreaking. Nonetheless, Thein Sein is praised as a reformer, and the man who tried to reach out to the opposition. In reality, however, the opposite is true: it was and has been Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy who have been steadfastly working for dialogue over the past 23 years. Furthermore, although Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that she was “happy and satisfied” with the meetings, she has made it clear that change is not taking place, only that there is a possibility of change
Nearly 2,000 political prisoners remain in jails across the country, and the majority of these were charged under criminal offences and thus belittled as criminals. Since these prisoners are serving their sentences as non-political criminals, they would not be released unless a general amnesty is granted which is unlikely in the near future. On the other hand, the military offensives against ethnic armed forces have intensified and the lives of ethnic nationalities remain shattered. In the midst of these continued dilemmas and devastations, a call for global support for the Thein Sein regime, such as that issued by the ICG, awards the state criminals who have enslaved the people of Burma and persecuted them with impunity for decades.
Zaw Nay Aung is director of the London-based Burma Independence Advocates