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A delegation led by US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski concluded a six-day trip to Burma on Friday, urging Naypyidaw to address concerns about the depth and pace of political reforms.
“At the forefront of this dialogue is whether the [Burmese] government can maintain trust that the reform process is moving forward,” Malinowski said at a press conference in the US Embassy in Rangoon. “How can it earn the trust of its own people, first and foremost?”
The delegation – which included Ambassador Derek Mitchell and senior officials from the Departments of Defense, State, and USAID – met with civil society groups in Rangoon and Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, before taking part in a “bilateral human rights dialogue” with governmental officials in Naypyidaw, the first such meeting to be held since 2012.
Although Malinowski deemed the delegation’s interactions with its Burmese counterparts to be “extremely constructive and productive”, his assessment of the country’s overall human rights situation and reform process was decidedly less rosy.
Malinowski expressed particularly strong concern about the religious demagoguery that has engulfed Burma over the past few years, claiming that the use of religion to “divide people” was “extremely dangerous”, particularly in the run-up to nationwide polls scheduled to occur later this year.
“This is really playing with fire, and is exposing the country to dangers that it is not prepared to handle,” he said.
The delegation discussed a package of four controversial laws pending approval by parliament that would place limits on religious conversion and interfaith marriage with the government and civil society leaders. The delegation also urged the government to end indefinite detention of stateless people – primarily Rohingyas – in Arakan State and quickly establish “non-discriminatory” pathways that would allow them to obtain citizenship.
“The question, we suggested, in assessing citizenship, should not be, ‘What is your race?’ it should not be ‘What is your color?’ [or] ‘What is your religion?’ It should be, ‘What are you prepared to do to help build this country?’” he said. “That is the way to build what everybody in Myanmar says is their goal: national unity and national peace.”
On Thursday, two days after the delegation’s departure from Kachin State, fighting erupted in the jade-mining centre of Hpakant, displacing more than 1,000 civilians. To Malinowski, this latest round of hostilities exemplifies the mistrust that has stalled Burma’s peace process. “It reinforces the imperative of bringing this conflict to an end through a ceasefire and political dialogue, something we have been encouraging for some time,” he said.
High on the delegation’s agenda was addressing Naypyidaw’s limitation of humanitarian access in conflict-affected regions of the country, particularly in areas of Kachin and northern Shan States controlled by ethnic armed groups. He claimed the government explicitly committed to fulfilling its obligations to protect civilians under the Geneva Conventions, but maintained that it “need[s] to ensure that that principle is reflected in practice,” also calling on the military to submit to civilian oversight.
“Whoever you blame for this conflict, whatever your interpretation for why this is happening, IDPs [internal refugees] should not be punished,” he said.
He also urged the government to speed up the release of prisoners of conscience and address pervasive land issues affecting vast swathes of the country. He singled out repressive laws that place limits on public protest, noting that they are not in line with international standards. “In our view, it is not in Myanmar’s interest – it is not in any country’s interest – to be known as a country that imprisons people solely for engaging in peaceful protest,” he said.
Malinowski assumed his current position in April 2014, after 13 years as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. In June last year, he led another delegation of senior US Treasury, Defense and State Department officials to Burma, which focused on peace and reconciliation in southern Burma and the sanctions regime on targeted individuals maintained by the United States.