A Dark Day for Human Rights in Burma

On April 22, the European Union lifted all sanctions against the Burmese government except for an arms embargo. An EU press release stated: “In response to the changes that have taken place and in the expectation that they will continue, the Council (of Ministers) has decided to lift all sanctions with the exception of the embargo on arms.”

While it is important to recognize reforms in Burma — including the release of political prisoners, the loosening of media controls, and greater freedom for Burma’s key pro-democracy political party — the international community has been overzealous in signaling its approval. By lifting almost all sanctions, the EU has lost the ability to press Burma’s leaders to continue human rights reforms.

The reforms undertaken so far are not sustainable; for example, although political prisoners have been released, the very laws that prohibited their activism remain on the books. The same military that is responsible for heinous human rights violations under the previous regime still wields significant control over large swaths of the country, and there is no internal effort to hold perpetrators of serious abuses to account. Any assumption that initial reforms will continue without international pressure ignores the fact that the situation in Burma is getting worse.

The EU is choosing to focus on positive reforms while overlooking increased violence and backsliding on commitments to reform. Although Burmese leaders have moved closer to democracy by allowing greater political freedoms, the country still suffers from widespread oppression and conflict. Ceasefire agreements between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army broke down in January, and renewed conflict now pervades much of Kachin State. Hundreds of political prisoners are still detained. Ethnic violence, displacement, and discrimination continue to occur throughout Arakan State and Mandalay Division.

The Rohingya, for example, are members of an ethnic minority group that is denied official recognition and citizenship by the Burmese government. Rohingya are considered “one of the largest stateless groups in the world” by Refugees International. Without official citizenship, Rohingya find it difficult to obtain health care, education, and employment. Not only has the Burmese government refused to recognize the Rohingya and provide access to basic services, but pro-democracy leaders who have long fought for human rights have also publicly supported discrimination against the group. Long-simmering ethnic discrimination erupted into brutal violence last year. A Human Rights Watch report, released the same day the EU lifted sanctions against Burma, found that government authorities and local Arakanese groups had engaged in “a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State since June 2012.” This account matches findings from PHR researchers, who recently documented violent attacks against Muslims in western Burma as well as other parts of the country.

From March 20 to 28, anti-Muslim violence occurred throughout Mandalay Division in central Burma. Riots left at least 43 dead and over 12,000 displaced. PHR uncovered a possible massacre of at least 32 students that occurred during the anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila. BBC has released video footage of police standing by while Muslims were killed and their homes burned.

In the wake of such extreme violence, neither the EU nor the United States has demanded an investigation or proper accountability mechanisms. During the previous military regime, the international community would have pressed for the Burmese government to end the violence and take all necessary steps to ensure that such acts do not happen again. Political reforms are important, but no progress on that front should prevent the international community from speaking out for civilians under attack.

By congratulating the Burmese government, the EU is ignoring the human rights abuses still occurring throughout much of the country. With the lifting of EU sanctions, much of the motivation behind the Burmese government’s reforms has now disappeared. Without strong pressure from the international community, the future of human rights in Burma remains uncertain.

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