Why it’s too soon to ease pressure on Myanmar
March 4th, 2013
09:45 AM ET

Why it’s too soon to ease pressure on Myanmar

By David Scott Mathieson, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher covering Myanmar in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.

Myanmar President Thein Sein has been touring Europe touting his country’s unlikely transformation in the past two years from the archetype of authoritarian repression to a supposedly shining example of peaceful transition towards democracy. But how much of this is real reform and how much is window dressing? How much have human rights genuinely improved on the ground in Myanmar?

To be sure, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has enacted a series of changes and made further promises to the international community that justify increased engagement. Several hundred political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties, restrictive laws repealed and new laws on peaceful assembly and association promulgated (though not without flaws), media restrictions largely removed, government and military commitments to end forced labor and child soldier use by 2015, and the government signing ceasefires with ethnic armed groups.

Many diplomatic observers argue that reform is now inevitable and Myanmar’s government should be rewarded. But a short glance down the list of Western steps shows just how quickly the international donor community has already acted: comprehensive economic sanctions removed or suspended, massive debt to international financial institutions cancelled, humanitarian assistance increased, and a rash of high level international visitors.

President Barack Obama’s visit in November led to significant but largely unfulfilled pledges from Thein Sein including the formation of an effective mechanism to review the 240 remaining political prisoner cases, cessation of ongoing armed conflict in Kachin State, and the opening of a U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burma. Only one major pledge, the resumption of prison visits and access to conflict areas by the International Committee for the Red Cross, has been fulfilled. A U.N. human rights office seems a long way from becoming a reality, despite Western states pledging financial support. Violence in Kachin State has decreased since January, but tensions are high after nearly two years of conflict where 100,000 civilians have been displaced and serious war crimes perpetrated by the army. Government formed investigations into recent sectarian violence in Arakan State and the brutal crushing of protestors outside a copper mine have been delayed repeatedly.

More from CNN: Testing limits of reform

So it is an important moment for the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to take up the rights situation in Myanmar these coming weeks. Based on the unfulfilled pledges Myanmar has made, it’s clear that the wish of some member states of the Human Rights Council to reward the government – by shifting Myanmar in the Human Rights Council from “Item 4” (human rights situations that require the Council’s attention) to “Item 10” (technical assistance and capacity-building) on the official agenda – is premature. The process and the debate over shifting cooperation modes at the U.N. Human Rights Council should be guided by improvements in Myanmar’s engagements on human rights. But Myanmar’s leaders in Naypyidaw should not see retaining Item 4 status as a punishment.

Rather, it is recognition that eliminating scrutiny is not the right thing to do so long as serious human rights violations continue in various parts of the country.

Fortunately, there remains support in the international community for the continuation of the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, an expert who has reported twice annually on the country to the U.N. Human Rights Council and General Assembly since 1992.

The current rapporteur, the Argentine lawyer Tomas Ojea Quintana, visited recently and will present his report in Geneva this month. Retaining the special rapporteur mandate and the independent scrutiny his attention brings to the human rights situation should remain a key priority for the foreseeable future. The role of the special rapporteur is crucial in providing neutral expertise and documenting both the government’s achievements and continued concerns over abuses. Keeping the special rapporteur mandate is a necessary measure to ensure that Myanmar’s reforms are sustained and irreversible – and that steps backward could be rapidly flagged and addressed. It was only two years ago, during Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council, that the government denied all the abuses that it is now taking credit for addressing

Just admitting to these abuses has been a small but significant step. But actually doing something about it is the hard part, and this will take time, focus, and increased assistance from the international community.

In short, now is not the time to remove the pressure that has led to the country’s recent advances. Keeping Myanmar a high priority in the Council will guarantee that improvements continue, build genuine rule of law, and give essential backing to the country’s increasingly assertive civil society and human rights defenders.

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Topics: Asia • Human Rights • Myanmar

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    Exactly just who are we Americans to put pressure on Myanmar in the first place? Let the people of Myanmar sort out their own internal affairs!

    March 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  2. Winner

    Ask Plato !!! Democracy was never meant to be good except people with right mindset. This is ridiculous suggesting to keep putting pressure (i.e sanctions) when the country is changing its direction already. Yes Keep on waiting(dreamming) N.Korea and other rough regime to change !!!

    March 5, 2013 at 12:41 am | Reply
  3. MinGaLa

    Mr. Mathieson, you said "... by shifting Myanmar in the Human Rights Council from “Item 4” (human rights situations that require the Council’s attention) to “Item 10” (technical assistance and capacity-building) on the official agenda – is premature." Are you out of your mind? This crucial time of this country needs the most of "technical assistanceand capacity- building." As you are suggesting that not changing status is not punishment, you should not even consider this as a reward at all !!! Hope you have the right thinking.

    March 5, 2013 at 1:00 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Last week Thein Sein embarked on his first European tour, which ends on 8 March. He aimed at engaging in high-level talks with the European Union. The five countries he is visiting are not Europe's largest: Austria, Belgium, Finland, Italy and the non-EU state Norway. Coming in from the cold, he is wary of the fact that every step on the world stage is carefully watched for signs of how well his country's democratic transformation is progressing,

    March 5, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  5. johnny

    I think the changes that Myamar are real, you have to be in Myanmar to witness it yourself. However, the Kachin issue is a difficult issue to resolve – unless a third party steps in to negotiate peace, amnesty for the fighters, and a political solution.

    Historically the Kachin state belongs to the natives, it was never part of Burma.

    Most, it not all of Myanmar's jade come from Kachin. Its a multi billion dollar commodity exploited by some Myanmar generals – and their relatives. And that is the cruz of the whole matter concerning. For decades, the Kachin people were grossly neglected and ill treated by the previous Myanmar dictatorship.

    March 6, 2013 at 3:46 am | Reply
  6. johnny

    The changes in Myamar are real, you have to be in Myanmar to witness it yourself. However, the Kachin issue is a difficult problem to resolve – unless a third party steps in to negotiate peace, amnesty for the fighters, and a political solution.

    Historically the Kachin state belonged to the natives, it was never part of Burma.

    Most, it not all of Myanmar's jade come from Kachin. Its a multi billion dollar commodity exploited by force by Myanmar generals – and their relatives. And that is the cruz of the whole matter concerning the Kachins. For decades, they were grossly neglected and ill treated by the previous Myanmar dictatorship.

    March 6, 2013 at 3:49 am | Reply
  7. Azeron

    People (e.g Quigley) need to realize that for Myanmar is a country that is being ruled with an iron fist for decades. No changes will every occur unless external bodies intervene. Ongoing internal wars have caused sufferings and death to the innocent people not for years but decades. Americans willing to intervene and putting pressure on the dictators are a BLESSING for people actually living in Myanmar. This intervention not only saves tens and thousands of lives but also brought people of Myanmar hope.

    March 6, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • Winner

      Yeah You should go do it in Egypt and Syria first.

      March 7, 2013 at 4:00 am | Reply
  8. Erik JC Young

    At the moment we are dealing with the erradication of 55,000 acres of opium poppy plantations in Burma/Myannmar. I have requested the CIA obtain a Supreme Court Order freezing the royalty payments on all Myanmar's oil and gas production until the poppy fields are slashed destroyed and the whole operation closed down.

    I have advised the Myanmar Government of the intent to freeze their legitimate revenues and told them we will use the new X35 super sonic jump jets fitted with crop sprayers to kill the plantations 55,000 acres of poppies the product used to do this will render the soil useless nothing will grow in it for 3-5 years.

    My cousin has moved 10,000 troops to the SE Asia region plus a $3 Billion aircraft carrier and had meetings with our regional military leaders who are partners in the offensive to wipe out opium and heroin. We will endeavour to submit a new income source for farmers who thought they were dependant on the heroin network, they will be provided US military protection if necessary.

    March 18, 2013 at 7:08 am | Reply

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