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Groups Press Clinton on Burmese Human Rights

  • Ron Corben

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nov. 18, 2011 (file photo).

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nov. 18, 2011 (file photo).

U.S.-based rights groups are urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to raise concerns over human rights when she meets this week with leaders of Burma’s military-backed government.

Twelve human-rights groups, including the broad-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, wrote to Clinton Monday asking her to take advantage of Burma's interest in a better relationship with the United States. The Washington-based group acknowledged reforms implemented by Burmese President Thein Sein since taking office earlier this year, but warned those positive steps could be reversed "at any time."

Organization officials called for more pressure on the government to release all political prisoners, which human-rights advocates say number in excess of 1,200. They also called for meaningful dialogue with the democratic opposition and representatives of ethnic minorities.

In Bangkok, Debbie Stothard, spokesperson for Alternative ASEAN Network, a rights group, said concerns about Burma’s commitment to reform are lingering after the passage of new laws that appear to restrict rather than advance democratic reforms.

"The new laws that have been put in place in the past year, including by the parliament, actually contradict a lot of the positive hype what has been going on in Burma," she said. "[There is a] new law for local government elections, but candidates will be picked by local authorities. We are [also] seeing the so-called peaceful assembly law, which seems to be more about restricting peaceful assembly."

Reports of ongoing violence

Ethnic violence also remains a key concern for outside aid organizations. Few foreign groups have access to remote areas where fighting occurs, but in a report released this week by Partners Relief & Development (PRD), human-rights workers documented recent attacks on ethnic minority Kachin villages, including torture and rape. The report says attacks occurred amid ongoing fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army.

Whereas Burmese officials have acknowledged attacks on ethnic minorities, they say the violence has not been systematic and that they are encouraged by what they call positive signs of talks with ethnic groups.

PRD co-founder Oddny Gumaer said she hopes Clinton will take up the issue of the attacks in talks with President Thein Sein.

"Most of our reports are coming from Kachin state, [but] the same kinds of things have been happening in Karen state and in Shan State," she said. "[And] yes, definitely, I would want Hillary Clinton to bring up these issues as she’s meeting with the leaders in Burma."

Earlier this month, a Burmese-government-appointed human-rights body urged the country’s president to release all political prisoners or transfer them to prisons closer to their families. Burmese officials have said the government holds no political prisoners, only those who have been convicted under the law.

The Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, has acknowledged reforms enacted by Burma's government, paving the way for Burma to chair the annual ASEAN leaders’ meetings in 2014.