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Amid fanfare, UN votes to condemn Burma

A resolution condemning ongoing human rights violations in Burma was passed by an overwhelming majority of votes in the UN General Assembly yesterday, contrasting somewhat with assertions among some world leaders that the country has shown remarkable signs of progress in recent months.

The 193-member Assembly said that “systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” continued, including state-sanctioned instances of “arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

It noted however the thaw in relations between government and opposition, and the October release of around 230 political prisoners, two benchmarks used by the US and EU countries to signify an improving political environment in Burma.

The resolution however was met with consternation by Burma’s ambassador to the UN, Than Swe. “We do deserve warm, welcome, kind understanding and sincere encouragements of the international community rather than unconstructive approach by adopting such resolutions,” he was quoted by AFP as saying.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon had positive words for Burmese President Thein Sein when they met last week on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Bali. He told the former army general, who is seen as a comparative moderate in Burma’s military-aligned government, that the rosy assessments of developments offered by Aung San Suu Kyi in recent weeks signified the extent to which things had changed since elections last year.

The Secretary General also said last week that he is preparing for his first visit to Burma in the near future.

Critics have however sought to douse the fanfare surrounding the new government by pointing to ongoing conflicts in the country’s border regions where Burmese troops are battling multiple ethnic armies. The UN resolution noted concern over the treatment of ethnic minorities by the Burmese army, which has long operated with impunity.

Although passed on an annual basis, General Assembly resolutions are invariably non-binding, although they can indirectly pre-empt more substantial measures in the UN Security Council or International Court of Justice. The recent vote is notable in that it was passed with widespread support, and emphasised continued violations in ethnic regions, at a time when signs of political progress are serving to mask the ongoing and grisly by-products of the country’s civil war.

The EU is currently weighing up the possibility of easing in sanctions following the return to politics of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which is set to contest in the looming by-elections. The Nobel laureate has said she will be among more than 40 candidates competing for seats, with some suggesting she may eventually run for office.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement last week that the bloc was already engaged in a “more substantial review of EU policy” to Burma, and that “continuing positive developments in Myanmar [Burma] are a source of great hope and encouragement”.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague was somewhat more sparing in his praise for the government following the UN vote, saying that the level of support sends a “strong signal” toBurma’s rulers.

He continued that “human rights abuses continue, especially in ethnic areas, and the level of support for this resolution shows once again that the international community has not forgotten the people” of Burma.

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