(Tokyo) – Japanese officials should press Burma’s visiting foreign minister on the need for genuine reforms to improve human rights in Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin will visit Tokyo from October 20 to 22, 2011.
Wunna Maung Lwin’s visit to Japan is the first by a foreign minister from Burma in 16 years. His meetings with Japanese officials are expected to include discussion of increased development assistance and possible trade agreements.
“The Burmese foreign minister’s visit is an important opportunity for Japan to urge the new Burmese government to improve human rights, not just talk trade,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch. “Japan should not be seduced into thinking that Burma’s recent announcements and gestures are sufficient when abuses continue in ethnic areas and many hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars.”
Japan’s stated Burma policy is to encourage “solid democratization and national reconciliation.” Human Rights Watch called on the Japanese government to urge Burma to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, abolish laws that are used to repress the rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly, and end violations of the laws of war against ethnic minority populations.
Burma’s government, formed on March 30, has promised economic, political, and legislative reforms. It has softened its rhetoric by using language on human rights and democracy, met with the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and loosened some restrictions on the media. President Thein Sein, a former general, has called on exiled dissidents to return and last week released 220 of the approximately 2,000 political prisoners in the country. Crucial by-elections are slated for the end of 2011.
There has been increased pressure on the government to allow the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to register and possibly to offer candidates in the elections, though no decision has been made.
The Burmese foreign minister’s visit follows a visit to Burma in June by Makiko Kikuta, who was then the parliamentary vice foreign minister. She pledged to consider aid programs that addressed basic human needsand discussedcooperation in four areas: human exchanges, economic cooperation, economic relations, and cultural exchanges.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call on the Japanese government to provide humanitarian assistance to Burma in a transparent and accountable way that strengthens civil society, rather than reinforcing corrupt power structures. The Japanese government should also ensure that the Burmese government improves access to Burma for humanitarian agencies that have faced problems in delivering aid, particularly in ethnic minority areas.
Resumption of non-humanitarian aid to Burma should be predicated on genuine improvement in basic human rights. Investment in natural resource extraction in Burma without significant human rights reforms could fuel abuses, destabilize the environment, and facilitate corruption, Human Rights watch said.
“There are many humanitarian needs in Burma that Japan can help address, and it should urge the Burmese government to free up humanitarian space,” Doi said. “Japanese investments in Burma’s emerging markets, especially the lucrative natural resources sector, should be conditioned on genuine improvements in human rights.”
Attacks by the Burmese army against civilians in conflict areas have intensified in 2011, with continued abuses in Karen State in eastern Burma, plus renewed fighting in the northern Kachin and Shan states, in which longstanding ceasefires recently broke down. An estimated 50,000 civilians have been displaced in this fighting. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by the Burmese army, including extrajudicial killings, attacks on civilians, unlawful use of forced labor, and pillaging of villages.
“Anyone looking beyond the promises of the Burmese government will see continued cause for concern, and this should be the message to the foreign minister,” Doi said. “Japan should inform the Burmese government that requests for increased assistance will get more attention once the abuses stop and those responsible are held to account.”