Asean must set benchmarks for Burma on rights

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) should set clear human rights benchmarks for Burma as a condition for its chairmanship of the regional grouping in 2014, Human Rights Watch said on 17 November 2011.

Thousands of ethnic Karen have fled a Burmese Army military offensive in Karen State, along the Thailand-Burma border - Photo courtesy of democracyforburma.wordpress.com ,

These benchmarks should include the immediate release of all political prisoners, the repeal of laws used to repress peaceful dissent, the end of abuses in ethnic conflict areas, and accountability for perpetrators of war crimes.

“Burma has long been a millstone around Asean’s neck that won’t be removed by making Burma the chair in 2014,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Asean needs to set clear benchmarks for reform and closely monitor progress.”

Despite two general prisoner amnesties in May and October in which 316 political prisoners were released, the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners of Burma estimates that 1669 political prisoners currently remain behind bars. The opposition National League for Democracy has also produced a partial list of 591 political prisoners based on information gathered from its lawyers, social workers, and local party officials who have had contact with the political prisoners or their families.

Human Rights Watch urged Asean leaders to press the Burmese government to account for all 1669 prisoners apparently being held for offences related to peaceful political activity. The government should release all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges, whether they have been convicted under Burma’s repressive political laws or for common criminal offences. The situation needs to be carefully followed to ensure that those released are not later rearrested, as has happened in the past.

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The Burmese government should provide proper accounting of all prisoners throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said. Given the lack of transparency in Burma’s justice and penal system, the government’s practice of moving prisoners to remote locations, and its refusal to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other independent organisations, families of all prisoners face terrible hardships. The onus is on the Burmese government to account for each prisoner, not prisoners’ families, opposition parties such as the National League for Democracy, or outside organisations.

“Asean should tell the Burmese government to stop using political prisoners as bargaining chips to deflect international pressure,” said Pearson. “Asean members need to ensure that all of Burma’s prisoners are fully accounted for, and those held for political reasons are immediately released.”

Asean should call on the Burmese government to repeal all laws that repress nonviolent political activity, Human Rights Watch said. The new parliament has tabled bills on forming trade unions, permitting peaceful assembly, and amending the political party registration laws, which may open the way for participation by the National League for Democracy. Asean should monitor recent reforms to Burma’s laws to ensure that their implementation upholds basic rights.

Asean should press the Burmese government to end grave rights abuses in ethnic areas and prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said. Serious abuses amounting to war crimes in Kachin, Shan, and Karen States have escalated in 2011. Since June, over 30000 civilians have been displaced in Kachin State, fleeing Burmese army abuses such as unlawful forced labour, extrajudicial killings, and attacks on civilians, with several thousand seeking refuge in China.

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Ongoing abuses in conflict areas show the culture of impunity that remains pervasive within the ranks of the Burmese military. Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for Asean to support the formation of a United Nations-led commission of inquiry into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and urged Asean to press for Burma’s cooperation with such an inquiry.

“Asean leaders should make it clear that an Asean summit in Burma is dependent on the government addressing ongoing rights violations and holding the perpetrators accountable,” said Pearson. “This means creating an international commission of inquiry as a necessary step towards bringing justice to victims of war crimes in Burma.”

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