Freedom House: White House Welcome of President Thein Sein is Premature

Washington


Photo Credit: ThaiGov

On May 20th, Burmese President Thein Sein will visit Washington, D.C. to meet with President Barack Obama in what will be the first trip of its kind by a Burmese head of state in 47 years. Given ongoing human rights abuses and the sluggish pace of reform, Freedom House expresses deep concern regarding the timing of the visit and the signal this will send to the Burmese regime.

Thein Sein’s trip marks an important milestone in the warming relations with the U.S. since he embarked on a process of democratic reform in 2011. However, the visit takes place against a backdrop of serious human rights and humanitarian crises. These include systematic violence against the Rohingya and Muslim minority communities in which the regime has been complicit; ongoing ethnic conflicts along the border areas; and an uneven and stilted reform process. Furthermore, many fear that storm surges associated with Cyclone Mahasen, which will soon hit the western coast of Burma, will exacerbate the already deplorable conditions for the approximately 140,000 Rohingya who remain displaced by ethnic violence.

“It is premature for President Obama to host such a high level visit given the profoundly troubling human rights abuses in which the Burmese government  continues to be implicated,” said David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House. “While there have been some steps in the right direction, there is still a long road ahead before Burma is close to any sustainable democratic transition.”

Although important legal reforms have been instituted on press freedom and political expression, de facto restrictions remain.  Despite the fanfare with which high profile political prisoners were released in 2012, roughly 183 others still remain in prison.  The specter of re-imprisonment looms even for those who were freed, as their release is conditional and they can be sent to prison at any time to serve the remainder of their sentences.  Just last week, Nay Myo Zin became the first political prisoner to be returned to prison under this stipulation. He was arrested for his role in supporting peaceful protests against land confiscation, which is becoming increasingly widespread in the country.

“While President Thein Sein’s efforts should certainly be acknowledged, the report card for Burma’s democratic reforms should read a resounding  “Incomplete,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Southeast Asia programs at Freedom House. “ Given that this visit is now happening, the Obama administration must take this opportunity to highlight pledges made by the Burmese government and ensure that human rights benchmarks are met.  Easing the scrutiny of Burma’s human rights record and unduly rewarding a regime at this early stage of reform would be a critical mistake.”

Burma is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2013, Freedom House's survey of political rights and civil liberties, and Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2013 and Freedom on the Net 2012.

To learn more about Burma, visit:

Freedom in the World 2013: Burma

Freedom of the Press 2012: Burma

Freedom on the Net 2012: Burma

Blog: Freedom at Issue

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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhousedc). Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter and our blog.