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Amnesty Int’l visits Burma: report cites abuses, progress

Amnesty International concluded its first official visit to Burma since 2003, it said in a recent statement.

The two-week mission to Rangoon and Naypyitaw consisted of 49 meetings, the majority of which, though confidential, were held in public places, it said.

Soldiers in the Burmese armed forces  Photo: MizzimaAI said its representatives talked with government officials; political parties and their Members of Parliament; members of the diplomatic community; lawyers and other civil society actors; ethnic minority activists; former political prisoners as well as the families of current political prisoners and a representative of the National Human Rights Commission.

“These meetings afforded Amnesty a preliminary opportunity to assess Myanmar’s current human rights situation,” it said.

Political imprisonment

Summing up its impressions, it said a number of former political prisoners noted that they had only been conditionally released under provisions set out in Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code. However many told Amnesty International that they have been relatively free to resume their political activity without harassment or intimidation.

However, Amnesty International believes that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. Due primarily to a lack of transparency by the government, exact numbers are not known. It said: "We regard political prisoners as persons who have been imprisoned on account of their political activity, even if they committed or advocated violence. They should be afforded a prompt and fair trial under an internationally recognized offense, or be released. Some government officials told our delegation… that nearly all names on various lists of current political prisoners do not correspond to prisoners of any kind, but are ‘just names’.”

Because of discrepancies in numbers and definitions of political prisoners, there was broad agreement among nearly every relevant person Amnesty International spoke with in Burma – including officials – that the government should initiate a review process.

“While a representative of Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission expressed interest in this proposal, the current capacity of the Commission—mandate, resources, budget, and staff—is insufficient and should be urgently strengthened by the Myanmar authorities,” it said, adding that the International Committee of the Red Cross should be given access to the prison system.

The rule of law

“Most political prisoners in Myanmar have been sentenced under laws that place the country well outside of international norms and standards on the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association,” said AI. “Legal reform in Myanmar is long overdue. This is actually underway and has yielded some positive results.”

Amnesty International discussed the Labour Dispute Settlement Law. “Not only does the law itself promote and protect the rights of workers, but the government also consulted international experts in drafting it. Both law and process have set a constructive precedent,” it said.

A new media law, once expected for publication this month, is now anticipated for July, it said.

Amnesty International was told “that Burma’s Press Scrutiny and Censorship Board has shortened its reach by a considerable degree since late last year, which marks a definite improvement in the right to freely receive and disseminate information. All the more discouraging then, that reform of the media law and other new legislation has not been more transparent. The worry thus persists that the new law could simply replace the Censorship Board in suppressing free speech.”

Ethnic minorities

Amnesty International said it welcomed officials’ pledge to eradicate forced labour in Burma by 2015, as well as credible reports that the practice is on a downward trend.

“While there was broad acknowledgement among those we met in Myanmar that civilians are currently bearing the brunt of ongoing fighting in northern Shan and Kachin states, there was almost categorical denial by officials that the Myanmar army is responsible for systematic violations against civilians,” said AI.

“This is starkly inconsistent with credible information our delegation received from Kachins who live and work in areas where a 17-year ceasefire broke down last June,” it said. 

With at least 60,000 newly displaced persons, the humanitarian situation in these areas is also grave, it said. Amnesty International was told that access to food, especially for children, is the most pressing concern. As with Burma’s prisons, it said the International Committee of the Red Cross should be given full and unfettered access to these areas.

It said ethnic and Muslim minority Rohingyas primarily in northern Rakhine State have experienced no appreciable improvement in the realization of their human rights.

“They are still not recognized as citizens and are subject to systemic discrimination in marriage, travel and employment,” said AI.

The human rights group  said official impunity for serious human rights violations, including past war crimes and crimes against humanity remains a major problem.

“At various times and in various contexts – such as the 2006-2008 military offensive in Kayin State, documented by Amnesty International – the Myanmar army has violated the Geneva Conventions of 1949 or committed human rights violations on a widespread or systematic basis,” it said.

Furthermore, in non-conflict zones, Burma’s security forces and government-backed groups have a long and storied history of human rights abuses, it said. This included the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, resulting in an estimated 3,000 deaths; the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingyas in 1991-1992; the deadly attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in Depayin in 2003; and the violent crackdown on 2007’s Saffron Revolution.

“Amnesty International is not aware of anyone being held accountable for these and other violations of a similar scale,” it said.

“So long as its independence and impartiality are assured, a domestic process could be as appropriate as an international mechanism, including a UN-established Commission of Inquiry, for which Amnesty International advocated exclusively in 2010 and 2011,” said AI. It said one member of civil society told its delegation, “It need not be trials, just some public acknowledgement of what they have done”. Another, however, was more pointed: “The Burmese people want justice.”

It said the National Human Rights Commission, whose formation last year was a positive step, is not the appropriate body to take this forward because it is only empowered to consider complaints relating to acts which took place after its establishment on September 5, 2011

Economic, social and cultural rights

For many years, discussion of the human rights situation in Burma has been heavily dominated by civil and political rights, it said. While challenges certainly remain in that area, AI said more attention and resources should be afforded to the promotion and protection of economic, social, and cultural rights in Burma.

“The government has allowed the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria to restart its programmes in Burma; has raised substantially state pensions for nearly a million people, most of them poor; and has allowed poor farmers access to micro-credit. These are very positive steps.”

It noted the government also reduced the export tax on agricultural products by 80 per cent, thus increasing the price farmers can get for their goods. Noting more progress, it said in March this year, the government facilitated greater access to areas facing humanitarian challenges, including conflict-ridden Kachin State. In addition, in April it floated the exchange rate for its currency.

“It should further widen the humanitarian space for agencies to work in conflict zones,” said AI.

As Burma's economy opens up to both domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investment, AI said it was concerned about the rights of farmers, fishermen and those who live and work in fast-decreasing forests.

“While two-thirds of Myanmar’s people earn their livelihood in these areas, two new land laws, for example, reportedly afford very little protection of their rights. There is no access to the court system, and customary rights to land are no longer taken into account when determining land registration and title,” it said.

Similarly, large-scale industrial, extractive, or infrastructure projects, such as the Dawei industrial port and the Shwe Gas pipeline, have already yielded credible reports of land-grabbing and forced evictions—abuses that the government should both prevent and punish, AI said.

It said Amnesty International is sometimes reminded, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

“To the extent that the only thing less desirable than a lack of legal reform is legal reform poorly done, this reminder is well-received,” it said. “Different time frames are clearly warranted for delivering a prisoner review mechanism, accountability for human rights abuses, and full realization of social, economic, and cultural rights. Capacity is limited, and the development of certain “human rights infrastructure” is advisable before particular changes are made.

“But insofar as prisoners of conscience can be readily identified and set free, and attacks against civilians can stop in response to clear orders, it takes less than a day to undertake some important human rights changes,” said AI. “Myanmar should continue to improve its human rights record accordingly.”

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Last Updated ( Friday, 01 June 2012 16:10 )  

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