Human Rights

‘Obama Should Express Concern About How the Reform Process Has Stalled’

By The Irrawaddy 5 November 2014

John Sifton is the Asia Division Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), based in Washington DC. He has covered South and South East Asia for HRW since 2001, and conducts advocacy with the White House, State Department, Congress and the Pentagon.

Sifton visited Burma recently. Ahead of President Obama’s visit to Burma, he spoke with The Irrawaddy about his findings related to the reform process, displacement and conflict in Kachin State and the crisis in Arakan State, where Rohingya Muslims suffer from persecution.

Question: What are your impressions of Burma’s reform process from your visit?

Answer: The main impression one gets from talking to Burmese NGOs, diplomats, journalists and community leaders is that the so-called transition process is in crisis, and in many key areas reforms have started to reverse. This impression is already perceived in Washington among government and media, although these concerns need to be understood better in the wider world.

One event I was lucky enough to attend was a briefing on October 17 by Burmese civil society groups, reviewing civil society groups’ views of the transition – 650 representatives from 257 organizations throughout Burma met together and produced a report outlining concerns over reversals of key reform indicators: more arrests and sentencing of political prisoners, farmers involved in land disputes, and human rights activists still being harassed, deep concern over the lack of constitutional reforms, the omnipresent Burmese military, the moribund National Human Rights Commission, the rise of ultra-nationalist voices, and the squeeze on civil society groups. It was, quite frankly, a damning indictment of Burma’s transition.

Those groups’ concerns are what I will take back to Washington—they reflect real concerns by ordinary Burmese of all types, who feel they are missing out, in many respects being actively sidelined from, the supposed transition. This is a powerful message to relay to decisions makers in Washington, especially on the eve of this important trip to Burma by President Obama.

Q: Many world leaders including President Barak Obama are coming to Naypyidaw soon for the East Asia Summit. What role can they play in influencing the reforms here?

A: President Obama, if he chooses to do so, could do a great deal to encourage the government to get the reforms back on track. We are calling on him to act and speak clearly about the consequences for the Burmese leadership if they insist on clinging to power and blocking key changes, like Constitution amendments to remove the military’s stranglehold over government.

But Obama shouldn’t be alone in this endeavor. Indonesia’s new President is coming, Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe is attending. Many key regional leaders whose countries have invested in the transition will be in Napyidaw and they should be deeply concerned over its faltering pace. There was a general message I heard, from almost every person and group I spoke with: people think Obama should use his visit to express concern about how the reform process has stalled or regressed, and that he should communicate clearly to President Thein Sein (and to the military, who really wield power in Burma) that an improving relationship between Burma and the international community will be at risk if the leadership doesn’t get processes back on track.

First, the government of Burma has to commit to constitutional reform, in particular a change in the methodology of amending the constitution, removing or lessening the military quota, and removing the Article 59(f) provision that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. Some people are resigned to the constitution not being changed, but it’s fundamental to the reform process, and the international community can’t settle for a status quo: it’s crucial to changing the country.

Second, honoring the unmet pledge made during Obama’s visit in November 2012 to facilitate an agreement between Burma and the UN Office for the High Commission of Human Rights to allow the opening of an office with a full mandate, including for monitoring and public reporting on ongoing human rights violations. Burma needs credible independent observers who can report on the human rights situation for what it is, and provide technical assistance to civil society and the government to nurture Burma’s own human rights mechanisms.

Third, Honoring the unmet pledge from November 2012 to work constructively with ethnic parties to reach a comprehensive ceasefire agreement and press forward with political negotiations. But importantly from Human Rights Watch’s perspective, these ceasefires must include serious human rights provisions because abuses, land grabs and displacement continue and could spark renewed conflict.

Fourth, pushing for a better plan in Arakan State—one that includes reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law. Again, this is not the time for comprise: the current versions of the Action Plan for Arakan State should be scrapped, a new plan has to be drafted with more input from international actors and in full accord with international humanitarian standards.

Finally, committing to do more to rein in or blunt the effect of groups engaging in hate speech or other divisive behavior, particularly by the Ma Ba Tha and 969 movement.

Q: But what can they really achieve given the situation?

A: I heard from several people that prominent world leaders visiting Burma can’t be seen as some moment of deliverance. The messages to be delivered should have a more long-term utility. This is quite correct: it won’t help if world leaders just fly in, admonish the government, call for more reforms, and then fly out and forget about Burma. Instead, the idea is that they voice clear messages of concern and pledges of international support to help reform get back on track. The big problem, however, is that leaders are worried, and possibly even depressed to the point of hopelessness, because they feel that warnings like those above are relatively toothless. Most of the major outcomes that the military wanted when they allowed transformations to begin in 2011, they have already got—in particular the bans on business activities and banking—and no one is naïve enough to think the US will threaten reversing those actions. “The US already gave all its cards away,” as one civil society leader put it to me.

But that’s inaccurate—the US still has some cards to play. Obama can tell Burma’s leaders that he won’t be able to lift remaining sanctions without progress on rights issues, nor improve military-to-military relationships. He can point out that US companies will remain reluctant to invest in a country where widespread rights violations and war crimes continue to occur. He can mention that Congress may demand that the US vote against World Bank and other international bank lending to Burma.

Q: You have said President Thein Sein doesn’t hold all the power over reforms, but that the Burmese military does. Can you expand on that?

A: I worry that many outside actors have fundamentally misjudged the transition process. They believe that a quasi-democratic government has taken power from the vestiges of a military authoritarian government and are now navigating a reform process that will end with a democratic government with control over the military, and not the other way around.

That’s entirely inaccurate. The fact is, the Burmese military continues to retain overarching political control in this country, in terms of the Constitution, economic power, and their ability to repress most of the population through force, especially people living in ethnic areas. This will continue to be the case until the military is compelled, by one method or another, to relinquish its powers. Of course it isn’t easy for an autocratic junta to give away its powers, but that is why it is so important that they continue to feel outside pressure when the process stalls.

Q: So why does the US government think that engagement with the Burma Army will work? Will Obama discuss this during his visit?

A: He may indeed, but then US military engagement, what is called MIL-MIL, is constrained by Congressional oversight, and the US Congress isn’t entirely convinced that military engagement will improve the deplorable human rights record of the Burmese army—after all, that institution hasn’t demonstrated any genuine commitment to reversing decades of abuse against the population. Human Rights Watch supports very limited dialogue with the Burmese military from the US military, about international humanitarian law standards, but anything going beyond that risks endorsing a military that has shown little sincerity in reforming its decades of abusive practice.

Q: You visited Myitkyina in Kachin State, what are your findings from there?

A: It is deeply unfortunate that the dire situation in Kachin State has slipped from international attention: the human rights situation there is actually deteriorating. There have been no returns for over 100,000 people displaced by the conflict that flared up in 2011, and although the camps I visited are being supported by Kachin civil society and aid groups, international support is diminishing. The world can’t turn its attention from Kachin State or the conditions are ripe for a return to conflict.

As I was visiting there was a lot of tension in the mining town of Hpakant with the Burmese army pressuring the Kachin Independence Army to withdraw from the area. There are still Kachin IDPs being arrested, brutally interrogated and charged under colonial-era laws under suspicion of working for the insurgents, showing the ongoing impunity of the Burmese security services. This is why there is so little trust in the government and military. Many serious cases of abduction and rape of Kachin women by the army, and torture of Kachin men are still not being investigated properly by the authorities.

Q: HRW has been outspoken in its criticism of the government’s proposed Action Plan in Arakan State, is that plan any closer to being finalized and released?

A: No-one could provide me with a straight or accurate answer about what is going on with this supposed plan. It is frustrating that the government has been so secretive of a plan that depends so heavily on support from the UN and international donors. I heard the new plan was improved on the draft HRW has seen, but it’s hard to trust these predictions without actually seeing the document and I have heard divergent claims about its release date and whether it would made public in its final form or as a draft to invite international input and advice.

Either way, the plan cannot be endorsed if nationality verification is conducted though the 1982 Citizenship Law. Nor can it be endorsed if it includes proposals for relocation camps, detention camps for people who can’t prove citizenship. This would solidify the ethnic cleansing of 2012 with long-term segregation—such a plan would be ethnic cleansing by bureaucracy.
The plan should include pledges to repeal the 1982 law and replace it with a citizenship law that is in compliance with international law. If the plan does not include an acknowledgment that the 1982 law must be changed, it is a deeply flawed plan.

Q: But the government, the UN, and many diplomats would say that a solution has to be found for Arakan State crisis. Why dismiss a plan that could have the possibility of improving the situation?

There is absolutely no doubt the horrific status quo in Arakan has to be improved, and we stand in support of colleagues in humanitarian agencies doing difficult work on the ground there under tight operating restrictions and having to contend with hostility from some members of the Buddhist Rakhine [Arakanese] community. At the same time, humanitarians have told me that they are anguished over the potential that their agencies will be, in the long term, complicit in segregation.

There needs to be a better plan that doesn’t pander to extremists. Things are so bad for the Rohingya that even some UN and embassies are refusing to even use the word itself—Rohingya—in describing the people they’re helping, to avoid upsetting officials. The United Nations especially has to clarify its policy on using this term: full commitment to the right of self-identification for the Rohingya, using the term in all high level speeches, documents and meetings with officials, while granting latitude to aid workers on the ground for their own security and avoiding inflaming tensions there.

There is no way that President Obama could avoid using the term in public when he visits soon. He did so in his Rangoon University speech in 2012, and will again. This should set the standard for all people working on Arakan, or risk betraying a people already repressed and disenfranchised.

Q: If the situation looks as bleak as you describe, what can President Obama really achieve then?

A: Obama can still give a sobering warning. He could say to Thein Sein that the government’s lack of actions could “put everything in danger.” He could say: If the Constitution isn’t changed before the November 2015 elections, if you go ahead with this Rakhine [Arakan] Action Plan and put Muslims in camps that they can’t leave, if you don’t pull back these voices of hatred towards Muslims and other religious minorities, if you keep using old laws to jail voices of dissent—if you let things continue as they’ve been—then the relationship between Burma and us is going to sour. The United States won’t be able to formally lift restrictions. We won’t be able to improve our military-to-military relationship. We won’t be able to move people off the SDN list. US companies will be reluctant to invest. And Congress will force us to vote against lending to Burma by international financial institutions like the World Bank and ADB [Asian Development Bank]. But most of all, the lack of progress will frustrate your own people and lead toward instability—the one outcome that no one wants.