16 February 2012

H. E. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan

Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

The ASEAN Secretariat

70A Jl. Sisingamangaraja

Jakarta 12110 · Indonesia

Your Excellency,

I write to you today  to share my lingering concerns about on-going human rights violations in Burma/Myanmar ahead of your mission to the country on 20 February 2012.

I would like to request that you use this opportunity to urge President Thein Sein and his government to take meaningful steps towards a democratic transition, peace and national reconciliation as well as to put an end to gross human rights violations in the country.

Thein Sein’s government has taken a number of indisputably positive steps since November 2011, when Burma/Myanmar was granted the chairpersonship of ASEAN for 2014. These include the release of close to three hundred well known political prisoners, changes in the election laws to allow the National League for Democracy, a popular opposition party, to participate in an upcoming by-election, and the loosening of pre-publication censorship requirements. While I welcome these encouraging developments, Burma/Myanmar should put forth the necessary effort in order to lead ASEAN in 2014, particularly given the fact that the ASEAN Charter commits member states “to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

I note with concern that the recent negotiations between government representatives and ethnic armed groups have not led to an end to conflict and the Burma Army continues to perpetrate gross human rights abuses against ethnic civilians. On 6 February 2012, despite the presence of a ceasefire agreement signed on 2 December 2011, Burma Army units shelled a base belonging to the Shan State Army-South in Mong Ping Township in Eastern Shan State. In a statement dated 5 February 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Mr. Tomas Ojea Quintana, commented that he “received continuing allegations of serious human rights violations committed during conflict, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, land confiscations, the use of human shields, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labor and portering.” The reigning culture of impunity empowers Burma Army soldiers to continue perpetrating such abuses without fear of punishment. Mr. Quintana also stated that “I remain of the firm conviction that justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth, are fundamental for Myanmar to move forward towards national reconciliation.”

I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the recent easing of media censorship and other “openings” that have been hailed by the international community has not been accompanied by legislative reforms. Repressive laws in Burma/Myanmar which include restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and the press remain on the books, unamended consequently, the people of Burma/Myanmar continue to fear arrest for their political activities, thus limiting their ability to participate in public life.

The recent release of political prisoners has been praised as one of the most significant steps on the road to democracy. However, hundreds of political prisoners still remain behind bars. Additionally, those prisoners released on 13 January 2012 were freed under Article 401(1)[3] of the Code of Criminal Procedure which allows for prisoners’ sentences to be suspended or remitted. Since the prisoners had their sentences suspended, rather than receiving amnesty as occurred in past prisoner releases, these sentences can be reinstated should the former prisoners commit another breach of the law.

Given that laws prohibiting freedom of expression remain in place, speaking out against the government will endanger them to be imprisoned again. Furthermore, we are disturbed by the fact that a Buddhist monk, Ashin Gambira, one of the leaders of the Saffron revolution, was re-arrested on 10 February 2012, less than a month after his release, reportedly because of his attempts to open monasteries closed by the government. While Ashin Gambira was thankfully released later that day, this was an apparent act of intimidation on the part of the government, seeking to silence an outspoken individual who is viewed as threatening their hold on power.

I believe that Burma/Myanmar needs to complete genuine democratic reforms as an essential prerequisite to leading ASEAN in promoting “regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law.” Special Rapporteur Quintana stated in his 5 February press conference that “prior to its assumption of the Chairpersonship of ASEAN in 2014, I would encourage Myanmar to demonstrate concrete progress in improving its human rights situation. The international community should remain engaged and should support and assist the Government during this important time.”

Recognizing your important visit at this critical juncture is aimed at encouraging the government of Burma/Myanmar “to seize the moment to mobilize its collective efforts to promote continuing peace, stability and prosperity in Myanmar and ASEAN”, I therefore specifically request you to urge the government of Burma/Myanmar to take the following actions:

·         Release all remaining political prisoners unconditionally;

·         Immediately stop intimidation and surveillance of released political prisoners;

·         Reach a nationwide ceasefire that addresses the root causes of conflict with ethnic armed groups;

·         Address the issue of accountability for human rights abuses and put an end to the ability of the Army to perpetrate crimes with impunity; and

·         Amend or repeal those laws that restrict the fundamental freedoms of the people of Burma/Myanmar in order to allow all of the country’s people to fully participate in public life.

Sincerely yours,

William Nicholas Gomes

William’s Desk


Download: MAYANMAR-Take meaningful steps towards a democratic transition, peace and national reconciliation


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