President Thein Sein’s government top-down reform process has pushed through important initiatives at a rapid pace to open unprecedented political space in Burma, says a leading rights advocate.
“But open political space will not bring meaningful change unless more people throughout the country and in all segments of the society move into this space and start to use it,” said Michael H. Posner (right), Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The veteran rights advocate will shortly leave the administration to join a new center for business and human rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
“Making Burma a home for all of its people will require broad, grassroots engagement by the widest possible range of its citizens, from ethnic leaders and bloggers, to lawyers and lawmakers, to factory workers and human rights advocates,” he told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission today:
I’ve just returned from my fourth and final trip there, where I followed up on the President’s visit and on the first-ever bilateral human rights dialogue, held in October in Naypyitaw. That discussion, which covered everything from legal reform to responsible investment to the protection of civilian populations in war zones, featured a Burmese interagency delegation including three ministers, members of the military, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (left), as well as our own delegation including representatives from the White House, the Pentagon, and several other agencies.
The official “Political Prisoner Review Committee has the potential to achieve three objectives critical to the country’s democratic transition. First, it can accurately determine the number of remaining political prisoners in detention and prompt their unconditional release. ….Second, the Committee’s consideration of specific cases should give it an opportunity to identify laws that need to be reformed going forward and to make recommendations to that end…..Finally, the Committee has the potential to help advance efforts to provide care and facilitate the reintegration of released prisoners.….
II. Legal Reform
Revision and repeal of flawed laws and regulations is another key area to which the government – both executive and legislative branches – should pay attention in the coming years. In the last two years the parliament has drafted, and the executive has signed, a series of new laws that constitute the first important phase of legal reform. During this period the government has passed laws criminalizing forced labor, legalizing labor unions, and allowing the opposition to run in the April by-elections.
However, a number of other laws remain in place, many are hold-overs from the colonial administration that are inconsistent with international human rights standards. The government has begun to review and revise these laws, for example by repealing two problematic laws last month, one banning public gatherings of more than five people and another banning daily newspapers.
Broadly speaking, these remaining laws fall into three categories: 1) media and “electronics” laws that restrict freedom of expression and the press; 2) laws that are inconsistent with the freedom of association by restricting membership in associations of which the government does not approve; and 3) vaguely defined national security laws that give the government overly broad authority to arbitrarily arrest citizens. While the government has mostly ceased enforcing these laws, reforming outdated legal statutes should be a high priority for the parliament and the executive.
III. Kachin State and Rakhine State Updates
The government has signed ten ceasefire agreements with armed ethnic groups in the past year, including with the Karen National Union with which it had previously been at war for over 60 years. Still, the government’s previously longest running and most stable ceasefire with the Kachin broke down 18 months ago and fighting has intensified in recent months. ……………
We remain concerned about the situation in Rakhine State, which has resulted in more than 100,000 IDPs since violence erupted in June and October. This violence broke out quickly and included attacks on non-Rohingya Muslim communities such as the Kaman, one of the country’s 135 officially- recognized national races. …..
On the religious freedom front we are deeply concerned about reports of continuing human rights and religious freedom violations in the ethnic nationality regions, including reports of sexual violence, the use of churches as military bases by the Burmese army in Kachin State, and coerced religious conversions in Chin state. ……
IV. The Political Economy of a Rights-Respecting Democracy and U.S. Sanctions Policy
….. The military-business nexus is still strong despite recent political reforms. There is still insufficient transparency relating to revenues from natural resource or into where these revenues end up. Some critics allege that the country’s natural wealth, auctioned off to highest bidder, continues to be siphoned to offshore accounts rather than flowing into the national budget. Investment in many natural resources are still controlled and financed by military controlled enterprises, such as the Myanmar Economic Corporation and the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited or their sub-entities.
Our sanctions remain in place on these entities for this reason. If Burma is to develop the political economy of a modern, rights-respecting democratic state, the government will have to tackle this nexus with the tools of transparency—auditing, public disclosure, and full accountability for corruption. The Government of Burma has committed to join both the Open Government Partnership and the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative, both of which will provide opportunities to enhance transparency and ensure broad based development……….
We also instituted the Reporting Requirements for Responsible Investment, which require U.S. persons making investments over $500,000 to report on their human rights, environmental, labor, and anti-corruption due diligence procedures. Companies without such due diligence procedures in place may nevertheless invest in Burma, provided they report that they do not have these policies in place. Our expectation is that companies that report a lack of adequate human rights policies will face pressure from civil society actors here and in Burma to develop them, and our hope is that companies will develop policies in collaboration with these groups.
Some have argued that these reporting requirements are too onerous and discourage investment, while others argue that they are too permissive and do not providing adequate human rights safeguards. But we’ve also heard from large American companies and members of Burmese and U.S. civil society who strongly support them. Our intention is to strike a balance, guarding against an economic free-for-all that would funnel investment to the military and its companies while still incentivizing responsible investment that contributes to Burma’s economic modernization, job creation, and widely-shared prosperity.
This is an edited extract from today’s testimony.