Rights Group Urges Kerry to Address ‘Backsliding’ in Burma

By The Irrawaddy 7 August 2014

RANGOON — Human Rights Watch has called on US Secretary of State John Kerry to press Burmese government officials on what the group calls a “deteriorating rights situation” in the country.

Kerry arrives in Naypyidaw on Saturday for regional meetings taking place during Burma’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but is also scheduled to meet with government leaders.

Last week, more than 70 US lawmakers said President Barack Obama’s administration should take a harder line with Burma’s government, and community groups in Burma’s Shan State are urging Kerry to express disapproval of recent Burma Army aggression.

In a statement from New York on Thursday, Human Rights Watch said it had written to Obama in July highlighting growing concern that the human rights reforms initiated by President Thein Sein “have stalled or are backsliding.”

“During the past year the number of political prisoners has risen with increased arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters and prosecutions of journalists,” the group’s statement said.

“Efforts to reform the justice system and enforce the rule of law have achieved little progress. And the military has been involved in widespread abuses linked to land grabbing and continued fighting in ethnic minority areas.”

The statement said Burma’s government had not taken a public stand against Buddhist leaders fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment, and said Kerry “should press the government to demonstrate genuine progress in ending the persecution of the Rohingya, preventing further sectarian violence, and abandoning discriminatory legislation.”

Kerry should also press for the prosecution of Burmese military officials and members of ethnic armed groups involved in human rights abuses, and urge the government to reform the 2008 Constitution, it said.

Also on Thursday, a group of more than 14 Shan community-based organizations issued an open letter to the secretary of state calling for him to raise with Thein Sein concerns about “escalating military operations by Burmese government troops in central Shan State, which are destabilizing the current peace process, and threatening the lives of innocent civilians.”

The groups said about 3,000 troops have been deployed in Ke See, Murng Hsu and Tangyan townships since June in an operation against the Shan State Army-North that is terrorizing and displacing hundreds of civilians.

“This aggressive expansion into Shan ceasefire areas, endangering and displacing civilians, throws further doubt on claims by the Burmese government that it is seeking a peaceful settlement to the ethnic conflict,” the letter said, also calling on Kerry to suspend the nascent military-to-military engagement offered by the US to Burma’s reformist government.

The US has embraced Thein Sein’s leadership, suspending most economic sanctions against Burma, and Obama is expected to visit Burma for the second time during another regional summit in November.

“While the United States continues to spin a positive story about reforms in Burma, the reality is that the reform process has not only stopped but is going into reverse,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.

“Kerry should use his visit to deliver a clear and public message of deep concern about serious human rights problems, including continued persecution of the Rohingya, continued military abuses against ethnic groups, and the need for constitutional reform.”