Burma’s Recent Changes Do Not Show True Systemic Reform

PHR welcomes recent changes in Burma, but calls for the government todo much more. PHR has long pushed the leaders of Burma to release politicalprisoners, end violent campaigns against members of minority ethnic groups, andhold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable.

Since Burma’s 2010 elections, recent changes reveal initial improvementson several human rights issues but these changes, while important, do not yetsignify deeper reform. Burmese laws still prohibit basic freedoms, and militarycommanders responsible for heinous human rights violations continue to gounpunished. PHR calls on the Government of Burma to:

  • Unconditionally release all political prisoners,and end all intimidation and harassment of political opposition and humanrights defenders;
  • End all attacks on civilians, especially againstminority ethnic communities;
  • Ensure consistent access of humanitarian groupsto conflict areas;
  • Establish fair and transparent mechanisms tohold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable for their actions;
  • Eliminate laws that restrict basic freedoms suchas freedom of speech and association; and
  • Establish the rule of law by promulgating lawsthat protect human rights and political freedoms and ensuring that these lawsare drafted and implemented in an inclusive, transparent, and consistentmanner.

Political Prisoners

Following international outcry, the Government of Burma released dozensof high-profile political prisoners including well-known democracy activistsMin Ko Naing and U Gambira. While the release of some political prisoners is anotable step forward, recent events indicate that the release does not signal the end ofharassment and intimidation of democracy advocates.

U Gambira, a monk who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution and wassubsequently imprisoned, was released on January 13 but was re-arrested severalweeks later. After being briefly detained, he now faces new charges.

The authorities continue to harass former political prisoners whoreturn to pro-democracy activities. Since recently released political prisonerswere not officially pardoned, any perceived misstep could land them back injail to serve the remainder of their prison sentences.

PHR calls on the Burmese government to release all remaining politicalprisoners unconditionally and to revoke the remaining sentences for thoserecently released.

Ceasefire negotiations withethnic groups

Recent news of a ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union(KNU) was celebrated by the international community; however, high-levelrepresentatives from the KNU insisted a ceasefire agreement has not beenreached. Such an agreement would only be the beginning of the reforms needed toend the system of militarization and impunity that has gripped the ethnicminority areas of Burma.

News of progress in one region of Burma is welcome, but does notaddress the scale of the military’s attacks on civilians. In September 2011, PHRinvestigatedthe human rights and humanitarian situation in Kachin State, and found that theBurmese military forced Kachin civilians to serve as human minesweepers,pillaged food and supplies from civilians, and fired weapons into a village.

PHR calls on the government to ensure that the military ends itsviolent campaigns against the Karen, the Kachin, and other ethnic groups inBurma. Because the violence has left tens of thousands of civilians displacedand in urgent need of assistance, the government should ensure that local andinternational humanitarian organizations have unimpeded access to those inneed.

Media and Free Speech

Burma has recently loosened strict media controls, allowing access tointernational news and social media sites. International journalists also haveincreased access to the country, and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is nowfeatured in the national press.

PHR welcomes the loosened media controls, but also calls for this positiveshift to be accompanied by legal changes to draconian laws that curb free speechand freedom of assembly.

Current Burmese laws authorize severe punishment for those who exercisetheir rights of free speech, assembly, and press. The Government of Burma must revokethese laws and other similar restrictions in order to ensure greater freedomsin the media.

National Human Rights Commission

The Burmese government established a National Human Rights Commission inSeptember 2011 to uphold human rights in the country. However, the Commissionis neither transparent nor independent from the government, and its memberswere nominated by President Thein Sein without input from civil society groups. The Commission’s Chairman, Win Mra, wasalso a former ambassador to the UN and has repeatedly defended the Burmeseregime’s human rights violations.  

The Commission recently announced that itwould not investigate allegations of human rights violations against ethnicminorities in conflict zones – one of the most pressing human rights issues inthe country. The shirking of this essential investigation suggests the lack ofindependence of the Commission and may indicate that decisions will be based onpolitical pressure, not human rights priorities. 


Recent changes in Burma have inspired hope for those dedicated to humanrights, but more work must be done before these initial changes becomeindicators of reforms that will lead Burma from a pariah state to a true memberof the international community dedicated to protecting the rights of itspeople.

PHR calls on the international community to recognize the initialprogress made by the Burmese authorities, but remain seized with the currentdevelopments in the country, including the ongoing attacks on ethnic groups.

Get Updates from PHR