Government’s first 100 days fail to impress on human rights

Press release

Paris, Bangkok, 10 July 2016: Despite encouraging steps, Burma’s new government failed to impress in key human rights areas during its first 100 days in office, FIDH and its member organization ALTSEAN-Burma said today. The two organizations called on the government to establish a national human rights agenda and immediately address key issues of concern.

“In some human rights areas, progress has been slow; in others, key issues have remained unaddressed or been relegated to a low priority status. The government must not fall victim to complacency because of its extraordinary popular support. It must set a clear human rights agenda that contains measurable and time-bound benchmarks to assess whether its objectives have been achieved.”

Karim Lahidji, FIDH President

“The government must urgently pursue legislative and institutional reforms, halt gender-based violence by state actors, and release all political prisoners. Serious efforts must be made to prevent crimes against civilians in conflict areas and systematic discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslim Rohingya.”

Debbie Stothard, ALTSEAN-Burma Coordinator and FIDH Secretary-General

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the government led by President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to include the following issues as key elements of the administration’s human rights agenda:

1. Constitutional reform

After making the amendment of the 2008 charter a central issue of its 2015 election campaign, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has put plans for constitutional reform on hold. On 10 June 2016, Parliament’s Lower House Speaker Win Myint stated that constitutional reform would be undertaken only after the achievement of national reconciliation and the successful conclusion of the peace process.

The military-drafted 2008 Constitution poses significant obstacles to the development of more democratic, transparent, and accountable institutions. Under the current charter, the military continues to operate without any civilian oversight and controls key ministries (Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs). These factors allow human rights violations, particularly in ethnic minority areas, to continue and foster a climate of impunity among members of the armed forces. The Constitution also poses limitations on the ethnic minorities’ ability to exercise authority over their own affairs. If the Constitution is not amended, the aspirations of ethnic minorities towards greater self-governance will remain unfulfilled.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the government to put constitutional reform among its top priorities and initiate dialogue with all relevant stakeholders in order to amend critical provisions of the charter. [1]

2. Legislative reform

During its first regular session (1 February - 10 June 2016), the Parliament, dominated by lawmakers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, repealed the 1975 State Protection Law and proposed amendments to problematic legislation, such as the 2011 Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law and the 2012 Ward or Village-Tract Administration Law. However, many other repressive laws that have been used to arbitrarily detain or prosecute activists, human rights defenders, and members of ethnic and religious minorities are still in force. These laws include: Articles 295(a) and 505(b) of the Criminal Code; the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act; the 1923 State Secrets Act; the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act; the 2013 Telecommunications Law; the 2014 Media Law; the 2014 Printing and Publishing Law; and the four so-called ‘Race and Religion Protection Laws,’ which were adopted by the previous Parliament between April and August 2015.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma call on the government and Parliament to accelerate the process of amendment or repeal of the above-referenced laws, which are inconsistent with international standards related to the right to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion or belief, non-discrimination, and women’s rights. The review and amendment of repressive legislation must be conducted through a process of adequate public consultation and meaningful input from all relevant stakeholders – including civil society, NGOs, academics, experts, and media representatives. Legislative reform must also include the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes. This can be achieved by permanently removing clauses that prescribe the death penalty for criminal offenses, including relevant provisions of the Criminal Code and the 1993 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law.

3. Ratification of core international human rights treaties

During its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November 2015, Burma accepted numerous recommendations that called for the ratification of core international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED). FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the government to hasten its efforts towards the ratification of these international human rights treaties. The first step should be the ratification of the ICESCR, which Burma signed in July 2015.

4. Political prisoners

Among President Htin Kyaw’s first acts in office were a 17 April 2016 amnesty that resulted in the release of 83 political prisoners and orders to relevant authorities to drop criminal charges against at least 160 individuals awaiting trial for their political activities. Despite these positive steps, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 1 July 2016, at least 123 political prisoners remained behind bars across the country.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the government to immediately and unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners. In addition, the two organizations call on Parliament to form a committee tasked with examining the circumstances and laws used to imprison citizens for their legitimate political activities and making recommendations to the President for their release. The body must have the authority to introduce proposals and draft legislation for the amendment or repeal of repressive laws that have been used to imprison activists, human rights defenders, and members of ethnic and religious minorities.

5. Anti-Rohingya policies and restrictions

In an extremely disappointing development, the new government decided to follow the previous administration’s official policy of avoiding the use of the term ‘Rohingya.’ On 16 June 2016, the Ministry of Information sent a letter to state-run news outlets to describe Rohingya as the ‘Muslim community in Rakhine State’ in their reports. On 20 June 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi told UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee that the government would avoid using the term ‘Rohingya.’

In addition, no progress has been made to remove the legal obstacles that result in serious restrictions and discrimination against Rohingya in Rakhine State and their ability to enjoy fundamental rights. Government orders dating from 1993-2009 impose restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage, the number of children a woman can bear, and other important aspects of daily life for Rohingya. These measures are inconsistent with international human rights standards.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma call on the government to reverse the current policy of not using the term ‘Rohingya,’ recognize the right of Rohingya to self-identification, and revoke orders that impose restrictions on the fundamental rights of Rohingya. The two organizations also demand the government begin a review of the 1982 Citizenship Law with a view to amend it to replace race and ethnicity as determining factors in the granting of citizenship with objective criteria that comply with the principle of non-discrimination, such as birth in the territory and descent.

6. Anti-Muslim violence and hate speech

Anti-Muslim violence, which plagued many parts of Burma between 2012 and 2014, has recently resurfaced. On 23 June 2016, a Buddhist mob destroyed a mosque and a Muslim cemetery in Waw Township, Pegu Division. On 1 July 2016, a Buddhist mob torched a Muslim prayer hall in Hpakant Township, Kachin State. In addition, during the first 100 days of the new government, members of the ‘Association for the Protection of Race and Religion’ (known by its Burmese acronym MaBaTha) continued to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya rhetoric. These disturbing developments, if not urgently and adequately addressed, have the potential to escalate. Religious intolerance and ethnic discrimination can and will undermine Burma’s democratic transition.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the government to resolutely condemn all attacks against Muslim communities, conduct swift, thorough, and independent investigations into these incidents, and hold those responsible accountable. In addition, authorities must ensure the protection of Muslim communities, curb hate speech, and any other expressions that incite violence against Muslims, including those made through the internet.

7. Military impunity for human rights violations

Attacks against civilians continue to be reported amid ongoing hostilities between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups in Rakhine, Kachin, and Northern Shan States, during the first 100 days of the new government. Reports emerged of arbitrary arrests, torture, extra-judicial killings, and the use of civilians as human shields by Tatmadaw soldiers in Northern Shan State. In Rakhine State, Tatmadaw soldiers forced civilians to become military porters.

Tatmadaw soldiers have rarely been held accountable for the widespread and systematic abuses committed against civilians, including numerous and well-documented cases of rape and sexual violence against women in ethnic minority areas. While Burma’s civilian administration has no control over the military as a result of the country’s constitutional framework (see above, Constitutional reform), Htin Kyaw’s administration should promote the establishment of ad hoc bodies, such as commissions of inquiry or truth and reconciliation commissions, as a step towards ensuring truth, justice, and accountability for human rights violations committed by members of the Tatmadaw.

8. Women’s rights

In its 2015 election manifesto, the NLD stated it would “take action as necessary to end the persecution, insecurity, violence, and other forms of harassment and bullying suffered by women.” However, the NLD-dominated Parliament has failed to enact relevant laws pertaining to women’s rights. No progress has been made on the National Prevention of Violence against Women Bill, after more than three years in the making.

Women’s participation in the peace process and in government remain extremely limited. On 31 May 2016, the President’s Office announced the formation of a 10-member committee aimed at transforming the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) into the National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC). Regrettably, no women were appointed to this committee. In addition, apart from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also Foreign Minister and Minister in the President’s Office, no women have been appointed to serve as part of the 21-member Cabinet.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge the administration and Parliament to prioritize the reform and enactment of legislation that protects women’s rights in accordance with its international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In addition, authorities must ensure that women are included in the peace process in a meaningful way.

9. Freedom of opinion and expression

Under the NLD, the positive trend of greater respect for the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the expansion of the space for civil society, which began under former President Thein Sein, continues. However, the authorities imposed restrictions on sensitive issues relating to the criticism of the military and allegations of human rights abuses committed by members of the Tatmadaw.

On 14 June 2016, the Ministry of Information banned the screening of Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, a film critical of the Tatmadaw’s past, at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Rangoon. The ministry claimed the film screening could “affect unity among national races.” In late June, Rangoon Division authorities instructed several hotels in Rangoon not to host a press conference scheduled for 27 June by the Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO) for the launch of Trained to Torture, a report that compiled accounts from ethnic Palaung victims of torture by the Tatmadaw from 2012-2016.

FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma urge government authorities to respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression and remove all restrictions that are incompatible with the relevant international human rights standards.

10. UN rights monitoring office

No progress has been made on the opening of a country office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). During Burma’s second UPR, the previous government did not accept any of the seven recommendations it received regarding the opening of an OHCHR country office. FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma encourage the new government to make a clean break from the previous administration and allow the establishment of an OHCHR country office with a full human rights monitoring and protection mandate.

Press contacts
Mr. Andrea Giorgetta (English) - Tel: +66886117722 (Bangkok)
Mr. Arthur Manet (French, English, Spanish) - Tel: +33672284294 (Paris)
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