Latest Update: 31 December 2013
The last three months have seen encouraging progress on human rights, including releases of political prisoners and movement on the ethnic peace process. However, there has been a concerning lack of progress in Rakhine State and on wider ethnic tensions. We continue to raise human rights at ministerial level. Minister of State for Asia, Hugo Swire, met Burma’s Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, at the UN General Assembly in September. In November, Mr Swire discussed human rights with Deputy Foreign Minister, Thant Kyaw, at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and with the Minister for the President’s Office, Tin Naing Thein, in London.
The UN General Assembly 3rd Committee Country Resolution on Burma was adopted by consensus (including Burma itself) on 20 November. While recognising areas where the Burmese government has made genuine progress, the Resolution further emphasised human rights concerns. It highlighted, in particular, delays by the Burmese government in opening a country office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
We continue to be deeply concerned by the situation in Rakhine State. During the last week of September, inter-communal tensions in the southern Rakhine town of Thandwe culminated in an outbreak of violence against Kaman Muslims by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. As a result of the attacks, six Muslims died, over 100 Muslim homes were destroyed, and several hundred people were displaced. On 30 September, the Burmese Foreign Minister spoke at the UN General Assembly about Burma’s zero-tolerance approach to ethnic hatred, and President Thein Sein visited Thandwe on 2 October (his first visit to Rakhine State), by which time a significant police and military presence had largely restored order.
The British Ambassador to Burma visited Rakhine State in mid-December, where the overriding priority remains the humanitarian situation. A total of 140,000 people are still displaced and there are increasing signs of permanent segregation between the Rakhine and Muslim communities. We are particularly concerned that UN agencies have experienced difficulties delivering humanitarian access to the most vulnerable in some areas of Rakhine State. During the meeting with the Chief Minister of Rakhine, the Ambassador urged the authorities to guarantee unhindered access to all humanitarian actors.
More needs to be done to tackle hate speech, which continues to inspire violence and intolerance across Burma; we continue to lobby the Burmese government to tackle these underlying issues. In November, four British police officers began delivering training to the Burmese police as part of an EU project. Over 18 months the project will provide significant numbers of Burmese police officers with training in community policing and public order best practice.
Following an outbreak of fighting in southern Kachin State at the end of October, the Burmese government granted permission for UN and humanitarian organisations to visit the area. However, low level fighting in Kachin state has continued to displace villagers and the UN still has not achieved full and unimpeded access. We remain the largest bilateral humanitarian donor to Kachin State.
Peace talks between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups took place in early November, and the parties agreed to work towards a nationwide ceasefire and political dialogue. The latest round of talks is due to take place in early January. We remain ready to support the reconciliation process in whatever way we can.
During her visit to the UK in October, Aung San Suu Kyi met figures from all sides of the Northern Ireland peace process to consider how parallels could be best applied to ethnic reconciliation in Burma. Former Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards visited Burma on 29 November as part of a visit funded by the British government. General Richards met Burmese Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing and discussed the peace process, including the future role of the Burmese military.
In October, a permanent British Defence Attaché was accredited to Burma, offering us a significant opportunity to engage with the Burmese military on issues such as ending the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence in conflict, drawing on the principles of the Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.
The UN Security Council Working Group for Children and Armed Conflict, including a British representative, visited Burma for the first time from 1-4 December. Over 600 child soldiers have been released since the Burmese government signed an Action Plan with the UN in 2012, and we welcome further progress and UN engagement with non-state armed groups on this important issue.
On 3 October, the Department for Social Welfare formally launched the country’s first ever National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013-2022. We warmly welcome this initiative to help address the under-representation of women in Burmese public life.
The parliamentary Joint Committee for Reviewing the Constitution (JCRC), established in July to propose possible amendments to the constitution, received submissions at the end of December. The JCRC received over 300,000 suggestions from the legislature, judiciary and executive branches, political and ethnic parties, the army, and civil society. The JCRC is due to report on 31 January, but the format and substance of their recommendations remains unclear. The UK has publicly lobbied for the constitution to be amended ahead of 2015 to ensure the elections are fair and credible.
Over two hundred prisoners of conscience have been released since President Thein Sein’s public pledge in July to release all political prisoners by the end of the year. On 30 December, the President ordered the release of all prisoners and persons facing trial for political offences. Mr Swire made a statement welcoming this, but noted there were individuals still in jail whose status as political prisoners is disputed. He urged continued dialogue between the government and civil society to resolve these remaining cases as a matter of urgency, and called for a review of the legal procedures used in the detentions and trials of several hundred prisoners in Rakhine State following the violence of 2012.
Update: 30 September 2013
The last three months have seen some positive progress on human rights issues, but there remain a number of issues of concern.
President Thein Sein visited the UK from 15-17 July, the first official visit of a Burmese President. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raised a number of our human rights concerns. They discussed humanitarian and human rights issues, including political prisoners, ethnic violence and the plight of the Rohingya people.
The situation in Rakhine State remains volatile. In July the President announced the abolition of the Nasaka security force, which had been accused of serious human rights violations. We made clear that its successor should be accountable and respect human rights. There were also several minor outbreaks of violence resulting in several people killed by security forces. And recently there have been attacks by mobs in Thandwe Town, southern Rakhine State, with one person reported killed. We have called for urgent action to ensure communities are protected. A number of those implicated in violence were convicted, including six men arrested for their role in the June 2012 attacks. The humanitarian situation in Rakhine has improved. 95% of the 140,000 displaced people now have access to adequate shelter and, after lobbying from the UK government and others, the UN and the Burmese government are now coordinating more effectively with one another. £4.4m of UK aid is supporting health, water and sanitation needs of almost 100,000 people. In partnership with the UN and others, we continue to lobby for further accountability, and for progress on the issue of Rohingya citizenship.
Sagaing Division witnessed a small outbreak of violence against Muslims on 25 August. The government’s response demonstrated improved responsiveness by security forces, but also an underlying failure to counteract the hate speech which continues to inspire the violence. We continue to lobby the Burmese government to tackle these underlying issues. The EU, with UK assistance, is finalising a package to deliver training to the Burmese police force to improve its ability to respond to public disorder issues.
The peace process continues, with Minister for the President’s Office, U Aung Min, meeting the United Nationalities Federation Council in September. We continue to monitor the uplift in violence in Northern Shan and parts of Kachin, but continued engagement between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Burmese government is positive. The UK government remains ready to help the KIO and government in any way we can.
In a speech during his visit to London, President Thein Sein pledged to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, following strong international lobbying, including by the UK government. There were 70 political prisoners released in July and August, with an estimated 100-150 prisoners remaining, according to Burmese civil society organisations. We continue to lobby the Burmese government to ensure this commitment is delivered.
A new restriction on freedom to protest in Rangoon was introduced unexpectedly in August, requiring permission in advance of public political discussions. The Minister for Far East and South-East Asia, Hugo Swire, voiced concerns over a rise in arrests of activists, stating that they contradict progress in other areas. We continue to lobby on specific cases and to call for the repeal of repressive laws which result in continued arrests and restrictions.
There have also been positive developments. On 8 August major events took place in Burma to commemorate the 25th anniversary of uprisings against the military regime. Mr Swire issued a statement in recognition of the courage of those who had been imprisoned and killed supporting democracy. On 21 September, the authorities permitted a public event to celebrate the International Day of Peace in Rangoon, in positive contrast to 2012, when several activists were arrested.
Working with others in the UN Security Council, on 16 August we secured a UN resolution against the use of child soldiers by both the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups. The resolution emphasised key issues: calling for the Burmese government to take action to eradicate incentives which encourage recruitment, to facilitate access for the UN country inspection team to visit all military sites, and to ensure that the issue is addressed in peace talks between government and ethnic groups. Mr Swire welcomed the resolution and urged continued focus in order to implement it. Subsequently the UN and the Burmese military have initiated a joint public campaign discouraging recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Finally, the Burmese parliament continues to demonstrate its capacity to act independently. In August, in response to lobbying from Burmese civil society organisations and international organisations, MPs amended draft laws on press freedoms and the work of NGOs, earlier versions of which had been strongly criticised by UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana. The revisions of these draft laws have been cautiously welcomed by civil society and journalists.
Update: 30 June 2013
Reform progress in Burma continued from April to June across a number of fronts, although there remain serious human rights challenges and ongoing concerns.
Following the significant outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Meiktila in March, there were several smaller incidences in other parts of Burma. In two incidences, on 2 May in Oakkan, near to Rangoon, and on 27 May in Lashio, Shan State, violence broke out leading to the targeting of Muslim homes and shops, which resulted in one death and several injuries. There were visible signs of an ideology behind the violence, linked to a militant Buddhist-Nationalist movement known as ‘969’. There have also been reports of anti-Christian rhetoric linked to this movement. In meetings with senior Burmese ministers in London, the Foreign Secretary, on 16 April, and Baroness Warsi, on 15 April, called for action to prevent further outbreaks and to bring those responsible to account. The British Government sent a scoping mission to Burma from 5 – 12 June to explore options for assisting with police reform, including managing riots.
On 29 April the independent Rakhine Commission produced its report into last year’s violence. It included positive recommendations on humanitarian issues, diluting hate speech and propaganda, and on ensuring security. However, on accountability and citizenship, its recommendations were limited. The report declined to use the term ‘Rohingya’, instead referring to this community as ‘Bengalis’, a term which the Rohingya reject. It also pointed to a need to reduce the birth rate of the Rohingya community, through voluntary measures. The British Ambassador to Rangoon has discussed the report with Burmese government ministers and we continue to monitor plans to implement it.
In late May, the Rakhine State government announced it would re-enact a district order dating from the time of the military junta, prohibiting Rohingya women in northern Rakhine State from having more than two children. The President’s spokesperson subsequently denied this was central government policy. Aung San Suu Kyi publically criticised the measure as ‘discriminatory’ and ‘not in line with human rights’. The British Government supported this stance, and has raised these concerns with senior Burmese ministers.
The humanitarian situation in Rakhine remains precarious; 140,000 people are still displaced. On 15 May, DFID Minister of State Alan Duncan and FCO Minister of State Hugo Swire announced an additional £4.4m of humanitarian aid, making the UK the largest donor of humanitarian aid in Rakhine State. Mr Duncan visited Rakhine State from 19-20 June, meeting displaced people and pressing Burmese ministers for urgent humanitarian action, real accountability and respect for human rights.
There was progress towards ending conflict in Kachin State. Following talks from 28-30 May, the Burmese government and Kachin Independence Organisation committed to work to end fighting, to begin political dialogue, and to discuss humanitarian issues. FCO Senior Minister of State Baroness Warsi, during a debate in the House of Lords, and Mr Swire, in a statement, welcomed the agreement and stressed that the British Government stands ready to assist the process, if asked to by both sides.
Concerns remain over continued fighting in Northern Shan State, and reports of associated human rights violations. During his visit from 2-4 June, the Chief of Defence Staff met separately with Burmese government and ethnic representatives to discuss British Government support for the wider peace process, including Security Sector Reform.
Releases of prisoners have continued, with 73 in total released during the three month period. However, the committee established by the Burmese government to review political prisoner cases, has suffered a lack of clarity over its mandate, meaning that there is still no officially agreed number in Burmese jails. Over 100 people face fresh charges related to political activism, following protests against the Letpadaung copper mine. On 4 June, President Thein Sein committed to release all political prisoners without conditions, and not to use a controversial clause which would allow politically motivated sentences to be reinstated for former prisoners convicted of new crimes. The UK hosted prominent former political prisoners from the ‘88 Generation’ from 18-25 June, who met Ministers, businesses, civil society organisations and Parliamentarians.
On 18 June the International Labour Organization, in a unanimous decision, voted to remove all the restrictions it had placed on Burma because of progress made towards ending forced labour. Mr Swire welcomed the move as further signs of engagement by the international community in Burma, pledging the UK’s continued support to the ILO to eradicate remaining forced labour practices.
The planned visit of President Thein Sein to the UK on 15-16 July will be our opportunity to further raise our concerns, in particular on the situation in Rachine State and wider anti-Muslim violence.
Update: 31 March 2013
From January to March 2013 there were encouraging signs of progress by the Burmese government on a number of human rights issues, including political prisoners. However we continue to be concerned about ethnic conflict, especially in Kachin State, and the situation in Rakhine State. We are also deeply troubled by the recent outbreak of violence in Meiktila.
Serious violence against the Muslim community erupted in Meiktila, in Mandalay Division, on 20 March. Following an altercation between a Muslim jewellery shop owner and a Buddhist customer, a large mob attacked and set fire to Muslim-owned shops and homes and Islamic madrassas and mosques. Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, attacks continued over the following days, resulting in at least 40 deaths (confirmed figures are not yet available). In a number of cases the local security forces reportedly failed to intervene effectively to stop the violence. Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes. In the following days anti-Muslim attacks in several other places in central Burma targeted mosques and Muslim-owned homes.
FCO Minister Alistair Burt released a statement on 21 March calling for an immediate end to the violence and urging the Burmese government to protect civilians and tackle the hostility behind the attacks. The British Ambassador urgently lobbied senior Burmese government officials and religious leaders to reinforce this message. He visited Meiktila on 24 March to see the aftermath of the attacks, before going on to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw to discuss the violence. We continue to monitor the situation closely.
The security situation In Rakhine State remains calm, but tense. We are particularly concerned by credible reports claiming local and regional security forces’ complicity in human rights abuses against the local Rohingya population, including reports of rapes and assaults. Some 130,000 people, the vast majority Rohingya, remain displaced in camps. The Chargé d’Affaires visited from 11-12 March to meet local government officials, civil society and aid agencies. We continue to urge improvements to humanitarian access and coordination, particularly as the rainy season approaches. Significant numbers of Rohingya have left Burma in boats operated by gangs of people smugglers. Most have ended up in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. We have lobbied the Thai government to seek compliance with international humanitarian conventions governing the protection of refugees.
We hope that the Rakhine Investigative Commission report, due to be published on 31 March, will provide concrete recommendations to achieve security, accountability for those responsible for violence and a resolution of the citizenship status of the Rohingya. We have urged the Burmese government to give full consideration to all the recommendations and to respond to these quickly once the report is published.
Following continued conflict during January in Kachin State, we were encouraged by initial rounds of dialogue between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) which began in early February. We continue to call for both sides to end hostilities. British officials in Rangoon are in regular contact with both the Burmese government and the KIO. We stand ready to support the peace process in whatever way we can. British officials have also travelled to Kachin State on several occasions, most recently 12-13 March, to speak directly to members of the Kachin community and assess the challenges faced in resolving the conflict. UK humanitarian aid to people affected by the conflict now totals £3.5 million, making us the largest bilateral humanitarian donor to Kachin State.
The British Government raises the issue of political prisoners with its Burmese counterparts at every opportunity, urging that they be released unconditionally. Local contacts estimate that there are between 200-250 people still in custody for political offences, although there is no agreement on the precise figure. The Burmese government recently established a scrutiny committee to review the cases of all the remaining political prisoners. It held its first meeting on 23 February. We have made clear our expectation that the review mechanism should operate in an independent, transparent and credible manner.
Tomás Ojea Quintana, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, visited Burma from 12 to 16 February. In his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, published on 6 March, he confirmed that “significant human rights shortcomings remain unaddressed” and highlighted concerns over torture and ill-treatment in Kachin, the remaining political prisoners, problematic implementation of new laws related to freedom of assembly and human rights violations arising from growing investment. The UN Human Rights Council renewed Mr Quintana’s mandate through the adoption by consensus of a resolution on Burma on 20 March. The resolution highlighted the concerns he had raised and called on the Burmese government to uphold its commitment to opening an Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and to sign the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention against Torture.
On 11 March a report was published into the protests at Letpadaung Copper Mine in November 2012 by a Commission led by Aung San Suu Kyi. During the protests some 20 people, including Buddhist monks, were injured, allegedly by Burmese riot control police. The Commission recommended that the mine continue operations on the grounds that it would bring economic benefits and that existing contracts should be honoured. It recommended better compensation and new job opportunities for those displaced, improved environmental protection and greater transparency. The Commission also confirmed that the police had used phosphorus during the clearance operations, and called for better police training. President Thein Sein has now established a ministerial committee to implement the recommendations of the report. We will monitor the work of this committee.