Time for a Full Court Press on Human Rights in Myanmar (Burma)

November 15, 2012

US President Barack Obama sits near Myanmar President Thein Sein as they participate in the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in 2011. Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On the eve of President Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar (Burma), the first ever by a U.S. President, his host, President Thein Sein, has released 450 prisoners, a move surely calculated to curry favor with the United States. A smaller amnesty announced in September, just before the UN General Assembly convened, included about 60 political prisoners.

It remains to be seen whether any of an estimated 300 remaining political prisoners will be scattered among the latest batch of parolees. Nonetheless, the prisoner release is, by any measurement, an encouraging step. It says something important about the power and influence of the United States, and the desire of the new government of Myanmar to kiss up to President Obama and bask in the economic possibilities of a post-sanctions environment.

Clearly President Thein Sein values his improved relations with Washington, and is prepared to take steps to advance the bilateral relationship. He appears eager to cement progress toward full normalization – the exchange of ambassadors, playing host to Secretary of State Clinton, his visit to the United States in September, sanctions relief, and now a symbolic Presidential blessing – all designed to strengthen Thein Sein’s hand at home and abroad.

This is good news. It means the United States has leverage. It is time for President Obama to make a full court press to advance human rights and political reforms in Myanmar.

Let’s be clear: this must not become a “Mission Accomplished” moment for the Obama Administration.

There are no easy layups for the President in Myanmar. The President’s visit is more akin to his post Sandy survey of a storm-ravaged, wrecked landscape of misery and destruction. Most of the hard work, cleaning up from decades of mismanagement, neglect, and brutality, still lies ahead for the people of Myanmar. The United States should offer encouragement and assistance.

Just in the area of criminal justice, the challenges are daunting. For starters, the government of Myanmar must ensure that all citizens are allowed to exercise fully their human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Those who had been detained solely for peaceful activities must have their freedom of movement within the country and abroad guaranteed. And as Amnesty urged last September, it is vital that the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission initiate prompt, effective, independent, and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture or other mistreatment. Those suspected of committing torture and other human rights violations should be prosecuted in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards, and victims and survivors should be provided with reparations.

These are just a few of the systemic reforms and measures required to translate a few symbolic prisoner releases into lasting change and respect for rule of law.

Other steps are also urgently required. Myanmar’s progress toward more open, accountable, just governance is real, but fragile and reversible. The military still holds veto power in the legislature, and the constitution severely constrains the ability of opposition groups to organize and compete on a level playing field. Myanmar’s laws on the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association are well outside of international norms and standards, and should be reformed.

And for all of the talk about cease-fire agreements with ethnic minorities, enormous work remains to be done to translate encouraging words into deeds. In Kachin State, sporadic fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Army of Myanmar over the past several months has displaced tens of thousands, and humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have no reliable access to the region.

Widespread ethnic violence also continues in other areas, particularly in Rakhine state, where nearly 1 million Rohingya Muslim minorities live lives of desperation, subjected to severe discrimination in marriage, travel, and employment. Despite being a state party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Myanmar even continues to deny Rohingya children the right to a nationality. Amnesty International researchers who visited Myanmar in May, 2012 reported that at least for some Rohingya, there is a sense that “all of these changes taking place are for everyone else.” 

Ethnic violence in Rakhine state has been escalating in recent months, and the government has a responsibility to quell the fighting and find lasting solutions to ensure that the rights of all who live in the border region are respected.

President Thein Sein seems genuinely interested in jump-starting Myanmar’s economy and improving relations with internal and external critics. He has an opportunity, in concert with other political leaders, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to end political repression, enact meaningful economic reforms, and forge lasting peace among Myanmar’s many ethnic groups.

Daw Suu indirectly addressed this task when she visited with Amnesty International last September at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and charged the next generation of human rights activists with the duty of addressing the root causes of repression, especially fear. Judging by the reaction of hundreds of young human rights activists who gathered that day to see Daw Suu, Amnesty International members will surely try to do their part, holding their candles aloft to help illuminate the path ahead.

But will President Obama fulfill his responsibilities?

The President is about to make a lightning-quick, blink and you’ll miss it, one-day visit to Myanmar. This is not the time for congratulations. This is the time for action. Seize this moment, Mr. President.

In the parlance of the President’s favorite collegiate sport, the people of Myanmar could use an “assist.” Armed with his March 18, 2008 speech, “A More Perfect Union,” President Obama is arguably better equipped than any of his predecessors to inspire Myanmar’s leaders to place respect for human rights at the center of their program of national reconstruction. Here’s hoping he doesn’t drop the ball.

Send a message to President Obama now: Press for human rights in Myanmar.