NGOs Raise Concerns With US Official Over Human Rights, Lack of Reforms

By Yen Saning 14 January 2015

RANGOON — Dozens of local NGO representatives and activists met with a senior US official during several meetings in Rangoon in recent days to voice their concerns over Burma’s human rights situation, a lack of democratic and judicial reforms, and lawmaking by Parliament.

A United States delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski is visiting Burma this week to participate in the second bilateral human rights dialogue between Burmese and US officials in Naypyidaw on Wednesday and Thursday.

Prior to the discussion, Malinowski visited Myitkyina, capital of conflict-affected Kachin State, and met with civil society organizations, religious leaders, political leaders, and international humanitarian organizations in Rangoon.

Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, said the talks he attended had focused on political prisoners and the rights situation, democratic reforms, and the social and rights impact of new laws passed by Parliament and President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government.

He said activists had complained to Malinowski that remaining colonial- and junta-era laws and the lack of an independent judicial system were impeding democratic reforms. “New laws that have emerged—mostly the well-known Peaceful Assembly Law’s Article 18 and 19—are giving us lots of trouble too,” he said, referring to clauses that set out prison terms of up to six months for holding unauthorized protests.

“There are over 200 land rights and human rights activists who have been charged with Article 18 and 19,” Aung Myo Min added.

May Sabae Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network, said activists voiced concerns over parliamentary lawmaking—such as the approval of the Education Bill last year, which is being vehemently opposed by student organizations—and plans to vote on four faith-related bills.

The latter package of legislation is being pushed by nationalist Buddhist groups that have been fanning anti-Muslim sentiments; the bills would set out restrictions on interfaith marriage, religious conversion, polygamy and population controls.

Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Burma Partnership, an alliance of NGOs, said she had told the visiting US official that the Burmese government has showed little inclination to cooperate with civil society organizations and had taken to harassing them.

“Democratic activists are treated as enemies by the government,” she said. “They couldn’t directly threaten us like they do to farmers and student activists, but they are finding ways to intimidate us.”

Khin Ohmar added that reforms of long-standing repressive laws were overdue as activists would like see “rule of law. We don’t accept being ruled by oppressive law.”

Over the past year, concerns have grown over backsliding on Burma’s political transition as democratic reforms and the country’s peace process have stalled, while anti-Muslim violence has continued and repression of rights activists increased.

US lawmakers and the White House officials have spoken out about the apparent backsliding on reforms, but have stopped short of calling for actions against the Burmese government. Earlier this week, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told a foreign policy event hosted by an influential US Congressman that Burma “is still a long way from being a rights-respecting democracy.”