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A 75-strong delegation from Human Rights Watch, wrapped up a week-long visit to Burma on Thursday, the organisation’s first official foray to the country.
The delegates included the organisation’s board of directors, senior staff, noted philanthropists and human rights experts. The delegation met with high-level government and military officials, including President Thein Sein, as well as prominent civil society actors in Rangoon and Naypyidaw.
“We saw this as such an important moment in the reform process, and we’re all aware of the enormous changes that have taken place over the last two-and-a-half years,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, speaking at the Traders Hotel in Rangoon on Thursday morning.
Roth praised the Burmese president for his willingness to engage with Human Rights Watch openly, claiming he “responded with real dialogue”.
“It was clear, his commitment to reform,” Roth said. “But frankly… it was clear that the government was divided. It was clear that there are some who are committed to a reform process, others who would like to slow it down.”
He highlighted the need for comprehensive legislative reform. “Because legislative reform has not been completed, people continue to be able to be arrested and charged on political grounds. As we discussed with the president, it’s almost inevitable that these ongoing political charges will be a problem, because when repressive legislation stays in place, it signals to officials around the country that these laws should be enforced.
“Despite the president’s stated desire to release all political prisoners, new political prisoners take their place,” he said.
He urged the government to drop restrictions on the provision of humanitarian assistance and open restricted areas up to the media and human rights monitors.
“Officials sometimes complain that there were rumours and misinformation emanating from these areas,” said Roth. “We stress that the best antidote to that is to open them up to scrutiny. Let the truth prevail. If the government insists there’s nothing to hide, why are they restricting access?”
The head of the US-based watchdog also noted the problem of Burmese security forces standing by or actively taking part in communal violence.
“The more difficult issue is the political recognition of, and ultimately citizenship recognition of, the Rohingya people. And here, the message was much more mixed. The President himself did refer to them as Rohingya in his comments with us, which was not always the case among other officials.
“We stressed the importance of amending the citizenship law, which is inherently discriminatory because it lists various ethnic groups which merit Myanmar citizenship and excludes the Rohingya.”
On Thursday, three regional members of Human Rights Watch – David Mathieson, Brad Adams and Phil Robertson – met with President Thein Sein at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw.
According to state-run The New Light of Myanmar, Thein Sein expressed his government’s willingness to cooperate with the organisation, and noted that Burma has “established closer relationships with the United Nations, as well as the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Council since the formation of the new government [in 2011].”