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

Published 21 April 2016

The last six months of 2015 were dominated by the historic 8 November parliamentary elections. The election was the freest in Burma for over 50 years, and conducted in a credible and orderly manner. However, the human rights environment during the campaign period remained challenging. Progress was made towards lasting peace when the government and a number of armed groups signed up to a National Ceasefire Agreement on 15 October. There was also further demobilisation of child soldiers by the Burmese military, and Burma signed or ratified a number of important international treaties, including the Chemical Weapons Convention and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, there were also concerning arrests following social media posts mocking the military and the introduction of discriminatory new “race and religion” laws. There was no sign of improvement in the desperate situation of the Muslim Rohingya community in Rakhine State.

The elections resulted in a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and represent an important milestone in Burma’s transition towards democracy. The NLD won a majority of seats in Parliament. In his blog to mark Human Rights Day on 10 December, FCO Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire, praised the credible elections, but also made clear that “there were flaws and irregularities” which will need to be addressed in the future. The withdrawal of “white card” identity documents earlier in the year left the majority of Rakhine’s Rohingya community disenfranchised, and there were issues with observers monitoring advance voting and the disqualification of Muslim candidates. However, international election observers reported that the vote overall was peaceful, orderly and competitive. In his 20 November statement to Parliament, Mr Swire described the elections as “an important step towards democracy, and a victory for the people of Burma”. The UK provided vital support to uphold the integrity of the election, including £2.7m of technical advice to Burma’s Union Election Commission via the International Foundation for Electoral Strengthening (IFES), £1.5m to support the training and deployment of approximately 5,000 domestic observers through the National Democratic Institute, and £400,000 to provide international best practice on security planning.

In the build-up to the elections, there was a worrying shrinking of democratic space, particularly for social media. In particular, the arrests of peace activists Patrick Khum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandy Tun, following social media posts mocking the military, raised serious concern about respect for freedom of expression. The trial of the student protestors arrested in March after the police crack-down at Letpadan Monastery also continued. The Embassy in Rangoon joined diplomatic colleagues in monitoring court hearings. We continued to press the Burmese authorities for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, and Mr Swire raised this issue during his visit to Burma in July when he met Presidency Minister U Aung Min in Naypyitaw. On 30 July, the government announced a limited prisoner amnesty: 11 political prisoners were among the approximately 7,000 inmates released.

The election campaign period saw an increase in religious tensions and intolerance. The Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha were particularly active during this time, organising rallies and marches in support of candidates who would champion Buddhism and the four controversial “race and religion” laws. The last six months of 2015 saw the enactment into law of the remaining three of these draft laws, with presidential approval of the Interfaith Marriage and Religious Conversion Bills on 26 August, followed by the Monogamy Bill on 31 August. It is particularly concerning that these laws contain provisions that infringe human rights and discriminate against women and minority groups. It is unclear how this legislation will be interpreted and implemented at the local level, and could potentially be used to entrench discrimination against minorities. We are continuing to monitor developments closely. Mr Swire raised this issue when he met Burmese Foreign Minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, in New York in September.

Progress was made in the peace talks on 15 October 2015 when the government and eight of the 16 main ethnic armed groups (EAGs) signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Despite this welcome advance, fighting continued in areas of Kachin and northern Shan States during the last six months of 2015, mainly involving the Burmese military and non-NCA-signatory EAGs, but also with clashes between a signatory group and non-signatory. Humanitarian access was severely restricted, civilians targeted and forcibly displaced, and non-signatory armed groups increased forced recruitment, including of children. The UK government welcomed the signature of the NCA, but called for renewed efforts to ensure that the remaining EAGs sign up to the agreement and begin the comprehensive political process to turn it into a lasting settlement. In September, the Burmese government signed the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. On 30 November, the Burmese military demobilised 53 child soldiers, bringing to 146 those released in 2015, and nearly 600 since signing up to the UN Action Plan in 2012.

There were continued reports of sexual violence in conflict-affected areas of Kachin and Shan states. In July, Mr Swire highlighted the UK’s concern and reiterated the importance of bringing perpetrators to justice. During his visit, he launched the International Protocol on the Investigation and Documentation of Sexual Violence in Conflict at an event in Rangoon with Burmese civil society. The International Protocol is an important practical tool which enables practitioners to document sexual violence, support survivors, and pursue justice. Mr Swire also announced additional UK support to the UN Population Fund for the development of sexual and gender-based violence services in southern Burma, building on successful UK-supported activity in Rakhine and Kachin states. The UK also facilitated the visit to Burma in late July of the Co-Founder of Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), Angelina Jolie Pitt. Ms Jolie Pitt’s visit helped to draw attention to Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and PSVI issues in Burma, and highlighted UK-supported projects which are providing assistance to survivors of sexual violence and strengthening women’s participation in political processes. In a series of high-level meetings with the President, Defence Minister, and Parliamentary Speaker, Ms Jolie Pitt urged the Burmese government to take further action and deliver on its WPS and PSVI commitments.

The last six months of 2015 saw no improvement in the situation in Rakhine and the continued persecution of the Muslim Rohingya community. There were ongoing reports of arbitrary arrests and torture of Rohingya. During the election period the security situation remained calm due to a combination of a heavy security presence and the disenfranchisement of the majority of the Rohingya population. Mr Swire visited Rakhine State for the second time in July. He met representatives of both Rohingya and Rakhine communities, and saw the squalid conditions endured in “temporary” camps by those who were displaced from their homes by the ethnic violence of 2012. Mr Swire pressed the state and central government authorities at senior levels to take urgent steps to address the desperate situation of the Rohingya.

Between July and December 2015, the UK continued to lead on human rights issues in Burma within the international community. We played a prominent role in securing a UN General Assembly resolution in November, which passed by consensus and highlighted the ongoing importance of progress on human rights issues. The resolution noted the historic elections and urged cooperation and open dialogue during the transition period. In November, Burma had its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) hearing in Geneva. The UK highlighted the importance of tackling the desperate situation of the Rohingya community and improving the rights of women and girls. Our recommendations included the appointment of a gender adviser to the Burmese government, and encouraging Burma to meet the PSVI commitments they made at the Global Summit in London in June 2014 when endorsing the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.