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Political prisoners, Arakan violence hold US attention

A US human rights delegation is meeting with Burmese government officials on Wednesday in Naypyidaw for the first of two days of talks, spearheading the continued scrutiny of the human rights situation in Burma by Washington.

The delegation, led by Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, will engage in talks with Thein Sein’s government on “rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tension and conflict, protecting minorities, the situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and democratic and military reform,” according to a statement from the US embassy in Rangoon.

The discussions will “provide an opportunity to review progress, discuss challenges, and find ways to cooperate to improve the human rights situation in the country,” the statement says.

Malinowski is due to hold a press conference at the US embassy in Rangoon on Friday.

Representatives from civil society groups focusing on political prisoners, human rights, women’s rights and disabled rights issues met with the delegation on Tuesday in advance of the official talks for a fact-finding meeting, Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, told DVB after attending the event.


Speaking about Tuesday’s meeting, Aung Myo Min said, “We mainly discussed political prisoners and democratic transition. Most of the questions the delegation asked us were about prisoners of conscience. We talked about the Political Prisoner Affairs Committee, and also reviewed human rights issues in Burma.”

He characterised the meeting as “frank and open”, saying that it saw the delegation seeking data and information from a “collection of the voices of civil society.”

Aung Myo Min said that that the increasing human rights violations, particularly the detention of peaceful protestors, needs to be prioritised, telling DVB, “The main issue is the misuse of both old and new laws.”

He highlighted the abuse of Article 505(b) (defamation of the state) and Article 18 (peaceful assembly law) as particularly problematic, adding, “We want to abolish this kind of law and make sure everyone has the right to enjoy and practice freedom of association and freedom of assembly, as mentioned in our own Constitution.”

The group of US representatives have also visited Internally Displaced People camps in Burma’s northern Kachin State.

In remarks made at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, USA, earlier this week, the Obama administration’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power said that while the US has gone some way to ease sanctions and reintroduce diplomacy, Burma is “still a long way away from being a rights-respecting democracy,” adding that “the civilian government is still subordinate to the military.”

She highlighted the continued constitutional bias towards the military.

Power paid particular attention in her comments to the ongoing conflict in Arakan State and the plight of the Muslim Rohingya community, denouncing the lack of accountability for the violence and acknowledging the role of “extremist monks” in exacerbating tensions.

She was especially critical of newly proposed legislation that would see Rohingyas being made to renounce their ethnic identity in order to receive recognition as Burmese citizens.

Power identified the role of the US in encouraging reform as incentivising progress; “Shining a bright light on the government’s shortcomings”; and targeting individuals such as Aung Thaung, the Burmese businessman who has been on the receiving end of US business sanctions.

She said that the US “still have great hope for Burma’s future”, mentioning the country’s youth who, having now experienced the freedom to talk about the hardships they have encountered, are “not likely to give that right up without a struggle.”


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