Human Rights and Democracy Report 2014: Burma - in-year update July 2015

Published 15 July 2015


In the first six months of 2015, the human rights picture in Burma was mixed. Burma reached a potential milestone in its efforts to achieve peace, with a provisional agreement on the text of a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord on 31 March. Burma also engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of human rights issues at the second EU-Burma Human Rights Dialogue on 18 June. At the same time, there were serious concerns about other human rights issues, including the violent treatment of student protests, the continuing detention of political prisoners, and moves which threaten to disenfranchise minorities from this year’s elections. These concerns were recognised in March, when a robust resolution on human rights in Burma was adopted by consensus at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UK was instrumental, within the international community, to bring this about. Significantly, the resolution renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, Professor Yanghee Lee, and urged the Burmese government to take immediate action on Rakhine and protect the space for civil society and human rights defenders in the approach to the November elections.

The lack of respect for freedom of expression and assembly, and particularly the policing of peaceful protest, continues to be a cause for concern. Demonstrations continued in January after police opened fire on local land and environment protesters at Latpaudang copper mine on 22 December, killing 56-year-old Daw Khin Win and injuring 17 others. In their report, Burma’s National Human Rights Commission criticised the police, saying that security forces had failed to follow procedures, and had breached international standards. The commission urged local police to investigate the shooting. In February, negotiation over a new National Education Bill led to nationwide protests and marches by student groups. Following several weeks of negotiations and restrained policing, the protests ended at Letpadan Monastery on 10 March with a confrontation leading to violence and large-scale arrests by police. This followed the break-up of a smaller pro-student protest in Rangoon on 5 March, in which irregular security militia were used against peaceful protesters. We expressed our concerns at the violence that occurred at Letpadan and urged the government of Burma to extend their investigation of the 5 March Rangoon protest to include the events of 10 March. We have also called for all remaining demonstrators to be released from prison and for charges to be dropped.

The first six months of 2015 saw no improvement – and in parts a decline – in the humanitarian situation for much of the Rohingya community in Rakhine state. Joint teams from the FCO and the Department for International Development (DFID) travelled to Rakhine in February, and again in May, to update our assessment and raise our concerns about the lack of progress. On 2 February, the Burmese parliament reversed an earlier decision to ban “white card” (temporary residence card identity document) holders from the planned constitutional referendum. The majority of Rohingya are white card holders, and this raised hopes that the Rohingya would, similarly, be able to vote in November’s general election – as they had in 2010. However, following extensive protests against the decision orchestrated by hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups, the government declared on 12 February that all white cards would expire on 31 March. The authorities in Rakhine have subsequently been collecting these white cards and issuing receipts which do not appear to have any legal status. We have made clear to the Burmese authorities our concerns about the status and vulnerability of former white card holders, in the absence of a clear process to replace these documents, and the risk of the Rohingya being disenfranchised.

The unremittingly poor conditions in Rakhine State for the Rohingya community have contributed to an increase in the numbers leaving Burma by boat for other countries in the region over the last six months. The UN estimate that some 130,000 Burmese Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have departed from the Bay of Bengal by sea since 2012, with a further 25,000 in the first three months of 2015 – nearly double the number for the same period of 2014. The discovery of a migrant camp and mass grave in Thailand on 1 May led to a refusal by the authorities in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to land migrant boats formally. This sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits, with up to 8,000 migrants stranded at sea in desperate conditions. Initially they were denied landing access in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but this policy was reversed on 20 May. Minister for Asia Pacific, Hugo Swire, called the Burmese Ambassador to the FCO on 18 May to express our concern at the situation, and press Burma to take urgent steps to deal with the humanitarian implications of the crisis, as well as the underlying causes in Rakhine. In Rangoon, our Ambassador joined US and EU colleagues on 18 May in delivering a démarche to Burmese Ministers. While the immediate humanitarian crisis at sea has receded with the onset of the rainy season, the underlying causes for the migration crisis in Rakhine continue.

On 9 February, Kokang troops reportedly attacked a Burmese military outpost near the regional capital of Laukkai in Northern Shan State. This led to some of the most serious fighting in Burma in recent years and the declaration, on 17 February, of a state of emergency in the Kokang Self-Administered Zone. The continuing violence has displaced over 30,000 civilians who have fled across the border into China’s Yunnan Province. Over the last six months, fighting has also continued in other parts of Shan State, in Kachin and in Rakhine near the Chin border. Despite this ongoing conflict, in March there was a further round of peace talks between representatives of Burma’s main ethnic groups and the government-led Union Peace Working Committee. This led to agreement on the draft text of a Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA), approved by President Thein Sein on 31 March. The agreement of the NCA text is a welcome step in the ongoing peace process. However, progress since March has been limited, and final signature of the accord by government and ethnic representatives remains elusive. While conflict and instability continue, serious human rights violations continue to take place, including the rape and murder of two Kachin teachers in Kaunghka village, Northern Shan State, on 19 January. We have raised our concerns about the incident with the Burmese government, and urged an investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. Lynne Featherstone, the Home Office Minister and UK Champion for the Elimination of Violence Against Women under the previous administration, raised sexual violence with senior members of the Burmese government and Burmese civil society during her visit in January.

The detention of political prisoners continues to give cause for concern. A new political prisoners’ committee was established in January (“The Prisoners of Conscience Affairs Committee”, replacing the “The Committee for Scrutinising the Remaining Prisoners of Conscience”). But so far there has been little evidence that the new body is gripping the issue. Over the reporting period we saw the release of some political prisoners, including the welcome release of Dr Tun Aung on 19 January. However, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPPB) reports that 163 political prisoners remain incarcerated in Burma as at the end of May, with a further 442 activists awaiting trial for political actions. It is important that the Burmese government continues to review unfair sentences and we continue to press the government to release all political prisoners. The then Minister of State at the Home Office, Lynne Featherstone, raised this issue directly with Minister for the President’s Office, U Soe Thein, during her January visit.

The first six months of 2015 saw further indications of growing religious intolerance in Burma. On 12 January, EU Ambassadors in Rangoon issued a statement of concern on the four controversial proposed laws on the “protection of race and religion”. Others, including the United States, expressed similar concern that these laws could, if enacted, lead to discrimination against minorities and women and would be inconsistent with Burma’s obligations under international human rights treaties. Despite this concerted international opinion, the legislation has been proceeding through Burma’s parliament and the first of the bills – on population control – was signed into law by President Thein Sein on 19 May. There have also been a number of arrests and prosecutions on religion-based charges – including that of insulting religion – that give rise to concern. Among these were the cases of New Zealand-British dual-national Phillip Blackwood, sentenced in March to two-and-a-half years with hard labour for depicting the Buddha in a bar advert, and former National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesman Htin Lin Oo, who was, in June, sentenced to two years’ hard labour for a speech on religious tolerance he gave in October 2014.

Special Rapporteur (SR) Professor Yanghee Lee made her second visit to Burma as SR in January. Professor Lee’s subsequent report was presented to the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva in March and noted that Burma “has undergone far-reaching changes..”, but that “there continue to be signs of backtracking by the government and increasing concerns over discrimination and ethnic conflict.” Along with the issue of Rakhine, the SR picked out the four draft laws on the “protection of race and religion” as being of particular concern. Following her visit, Professor Lee was subjected to a virulent and personally-abusive verbal attack by prominent nationalist Buddhist monk, U Wirtathu. The UK has deplored this treatment and called on the Ministry of Religious Affairs to act on the matter. The UK remains strongly supportive of Professor Lee and her mandate, which the FCO Minister for human rights and the UN, Baroness Anelay, was able to discuss when the SR visited London on 19 March.