Sunday, December 4, 2011

Burmese Regime Doesn’t Need More Time to End Human Rights Abuses

In her visit to Burma, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should deliver a clear and firm message to President Thein Sein: The domestic opposition and the regional and international communities have given your new government the acknowledgment and legitimacy that you demanded for taking some initial steps toward reform. Now there is no longer any excuse for human rights abuses and armed hostilities to continue in Burma for one day longer.

Thein Sein and his cadre of more reform-minded officials have argued that the process of democratic change is slow in a country such as Burma and therefore everyone must show patience. This is true with respect to certain institutional reforms that must take place for the country to be free and democratic and provide opportunity for all of its citizens, but it is not true with respect to human rights abuses such as rape, forced labor and the imprisonment of political activists.

For example, it will take time for the necessary constitutional reforms to be negotiated, drafted and approved. What will be required is for the Parliament to engage in the equivalent of a national constitutional convention that debates and agrees on what a truly democratic Burma should look like in the future. This will require much discussion and compromise on everyone’s behalf and will not happen overnight.

National economic reform will also take time. To change the banking and monetary system, institute land reform, complete the process of privatization and tackle corruption and cronyism in a country where it is so endemic will be a gargantuan task that must be done incrementally so Burma’s economic system — such that it is — does not collapse entirely.

Even a comprehensive political solution to Burma’s ethnic issues will take time. For any country to grant significant autonomy to several diverse regions is a difficult task with a large number of national and local issues to be assessed and balanced.

All that said, even though the process of agreeing on and implementing these major reforms will take time to be done properly, important initial steps can be taken now, and certainly as soon as the by-elections are held and the new Parliament is in session.

Separately, there are certain government actions with respect to ending armed conflicts and human rights abuses that are long overdue and should not be lumped into the basket of “reforms that take time.”

All military hostilities in the ethnic regions should end immediately. Although not a long-lasting solution, at least until the run-up to the 2010 election there were cease-fire agreements and an imperfect stability in most ethnic regions. It is no accident that the current armed conflicts flared and the ceasefires were broken after the government tried to bully the ethnic armed groups into joining its border guard force and infringed on some of their territories to protect investment projects that would benefit only the Chinese and Burmese government cronies. There is no reason why Thein Sein’s government could not immediately and unilaterally revert to the previous cease-fire terms and territories and stop the fighting.

In addition, all human rights abuses by the Burmese government and military in ethnic regions must halt now and forever. To stop abuses such as rape and forced labor does not take time, it only takes political will and courage by the nation’s leaders. If Thein Sein and the commander in chief of Burma’s armed forces, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, issued a joint statement today saying that such abuses would no longer be tolerated and anyone engaged in or overseeing them would be publicly prosecuted, and then acted immediately to back up their statement with actions, they could put an end to the vast majority of the abuses in short order.

Holding human beings hostage as political prisoners is also a human rights abuse that must end now.

Nay Zin Latt, a top adviser to Thein Sein, recently said, “Releasing prisoners who have a political background is in the mind of the president, but through stability. This is a transition period, we should not forget. The government does not want any failures and mistakes.”

Using stability as an excuse for not releasing all of the political prisoners sounds simply lame and places no value on the lives of those behind bars. It is inclusivity and respect for the value of human life and freedom that will bring stability to Burma, not the isolation and suppression of those with different political opinions.

Thein Sein should realize that he had a very high hurdle to clear in order to convince the domestic opposition and international community that he was sincere in his stated desire to bring true reform to Burma. He began the process by meeting with Suu Kyi, instituting media and internet reforms and suspending the Myitsone Dam project. But his categorization of the Kachin Independence Army as the equivalent of terrorists reminded everyone of his background as a top junta general and did serious harm to the process of national peace and reconciliation.

In addition, Thein Sein and his colleagues have implied several times over the last few months that all of the political prisoners would soon be released, only to put away the jail key after dangling it in front of everyone’s eyes. Also extremely worrisome was the president’s recent remark that there are no prisoners of conscience in Burma. Regardless of what technical legal argument Thein Sein could muster in support of such a claim, it was entirely insincere and unhelpful, and if the prisoners are not released soon threatens to undermine all of the credibility he has established to date.

With Clinton’s visit, Thein Sein has the opportunity to demonstrate that his government does not need to be dragged kicking and screaming toward major, irreversible reforms in the area of human rights. If he shows the political will to make immediate changes that end the nation’s armed conflicts and human rights abuses, then he will have earned the necessary patience from the Burmese people during the period that deeper institutional reforms are carried out, and the country can say that it is has truly entered a transition towards genuine democracy.

This article originally appeared in The Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile news magazine published in Thailand.

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