While Myanmar’s charm offensive is everywhere in the media through the opening of the country, and the first trip of its world famous opponent Aung Sang Suu Kyi, human rights activists say flagrant abuses of ethnic minorities by authorities is still commonplace.
The Burmese government is still committing torture and ill-treatment and it is too early to lift sanctions, a human rights group said on Wednesday during a press conference at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand).
According to a report released by the Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND – Burma), 371 cases of human rights violations have been documented across the country between January and December 2011, and more than 439 political prisoners still remain in jail.
Although Myanmar is being recognized by the international community for its democratic reforms, representatives of some of the 13 organizations that collaborate with ND-Burma were concerned about the rapid lifting of sanctions by the Western countries. The removal of political pressure that could end these abuses would mean perpetrators may not be held accountable for the human rights violations.
“For us, it is too early to lift the sanctions” said Twan Zaw, from the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress. “As long as they are in prison, that is not real change. They have to stop the torture and the imprisonments. We still need outside pressure, until there are no more violations”, he said.
The report, entitled “Extreme Measures: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Burma since the 2010 Elections”, documents 83 cases of torture and ill-treatment, particularly in detention centers and in ethnic nationality areas, predominantly in the conflict regions of Kachin and Shan states.
Political prisoners have been subject to physical and psychological abuses, particularly during the period of interrogation soon after arrest.
These include various forms of torture such as beatings, solitary confinement and deprivation of basic needs such as sleep and water.
In ethnic minority areas, there have been cases of terrorizing civilian populations, arbitrary arrests, forced relocation of populations, executions, beatings, confiscation of property, illegal taxation and cases of sexual abuse and rape.
“Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war in Kachin since the fighting broke out”, said Hkawng Seng Pan, representative of the Kachin Women’s Association – Thailand.
The region has been a conflict zone since June of last year, after a 17-year-old ceasefire between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) was broken.
There are two main reasons why such abuses still happen, according to ND-Burma: the lack of a legislation that prohibits torture, and secondly, the absence of an independent judiciary.
“Neither Burmese law nor the Burma constitution explicitly prohibits torture”, says the report.
“Constitutional reform is needed to give equal rights to ethnic nationalities and there must also be Rule of Law”, said Pan.
Although a Myanmar Human Rights Commission was established by President Thein Sein in September 2011, ND-Burma believes it lacks independence.
As the country is moving towards reform and reconciliation, some minority groups fear a whitewashing of past abuses. “There must be accountability to get off the tradition of impunity”, said Zaw.
However, others fear that pointing fingers may be dangerous for the smooth political transition in Myanmar:
“We don’t want to repent, for the good of Burma. If the government really wants to change, we will not repent,” said former political prisoner Min Min, from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The report concludes by saying: “Any administration attempting to develop national unity must deal with Burma’s legacy of torture if it wishes to ensure a society where there is Rule of Law and respect for State institutions”.
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