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Burma’s Recent Changes Do Not Show True Systemic Reform

Andrea Gittleman, JD on March 1, 2012

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

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

  • Unconditionally release all political prisoners, and end all intimidation and harassment of political opposition and human rights defenders;
  • End all attacks on civilians, especially against minority ethnic communities;
  • Ensure consistent access of humanitarian groups to conflict areas;
  • Establish fair and transparent mechanisms to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable for their actions;
  • Eliminate laws that restrict basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and association; and
  • Establish the rule of law by promulgating laws that protect human rights and political freedoms and ensuring that these laws are drafted and implemented in an inclusive, transparent, and consistent manner.

Political Prisoners

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

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

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

PHR calls on the Burmese government to release all remaining political prisoners unconditionally and to revoke the remaining sentences for those recently released.

Ceasefire negotiations with ethnic groups

Recent news of a ceasefire between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU) was celebrated by the international community; however, high-level representatives from the KNU insisted a ceasefire agreement has not been reached. Such an agreement would only be the beginning of the reforms needed to end the system of militarization and impunity that has gripped the ethnic minority areas of Burma.

News of progress in one region of Burma is welcome, but does not address the scale of the military’s attacks on civilians. In September 2011, PHR investigated the human rights and humanitarian situation in Kachin State, and found that the Burmese 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 its violent campaigns against the Karen, the Kachin, and other ethnic groups in Burma. Because the violence has left tens of thousands of civilians displaced and in urgent need of assistance, the government should ensure that local and international humanitarian organizations have unimpeded access to those in need.

Media and Free Speech

Burma has recently loosened strict media controls, allowing access to international news and social media sites. International journalists also have increased access to the country, and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is now featured in the national press.

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

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

National Human Rights Commission

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

The Commission recently announced that it would not investigate allegations of human rights violations against ethnic minorities in conflict zones – one of the most pressing human rights issues in the country. The shirking of this essential investigation suggests the lack of independence of the Commission and may indicate that decisions will be based on political pressure, not human rights priorities. 


Recent changes in Burma have inspired hope for those dedicated to human rights, but more work must be done before these initial changes become indicators of reforms that will lead Burma from a pariah state to a true member of the international community dedicated to protecting the rights of its people.

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

Places: Burma