Rights Workers Pressured Despite Burma’s Would-Be Reforms

By Ted Andersen 24 July 2015

BANGKOK — A new report says human rights workers in Burma face threats to their personal security despite moves toward political reform since military rule gave way to an elected government four years ago.

The report issued Thursday in Bangkok by the independent groups Burma Partnership and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, depicts a climate of violence, sexual assault, arrests and cyber-threats against aid workers, in some cases believed to be linked to the government.

Almost half of the women interviewed for the report said they had experienced some form of sexual or physical violence, sexual harassment or intimidation, and student groups said they suffered harassment both in person and through social media. The report drew on testimony from 75 non-governmental organization workers and data from journalists and student activists from November 2014 to March.

President’s Office director Zaw Htay said the government had no immediate comment on the report. In the past, the government has said it respects human rights while managing the country’s delicate democratic transition.

Human rights workers and dissidents suffered heavy repression during army rule, with many activists given long jail terms under vaguely-defined national security statutes.

“These human rights defenders are operating in an environment as dangerous as ever before,” said Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership. “This situation needs to be exposed.”

Burma’s transition in 2011 to an elected government after almost five decades of military rule raised hopes of liberalization among human rights activists and democracy advocates when new President Thein Sein began instituting unexpected political and economic reforms, and released more than 1,300 political prisoners. The actions prompted Western nations to lift most of the political and economic sanctions they had imposed on the previous military regime.

However, the Constitution adopted during army rule ensures military dominance and the reforms have slowed or retreated. Prospects for freedom of speech, which looked bright when the government lifted most censorship, dimmed when it began to prosecute journalists in court for writing critical stories.