Burma’s powerful military is resistant to change and continues to commit “grave human rights violations” despite the government’s push for political reforms, a Burma expert with Human Rights Watch who just returned from the country said Thursday.
David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for the New York-based rights group, warned that initial democratic reforms being implemented by President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government could be easily reversed, especially as the country’s repressive laws have not been repealed.
Burma's army meanwhile remains "deeply abusive," Mathieson said.
“Now with all the changes happening in central Burma, it’s quite alarming that the army is showing absolutely no compunction to change its behavior,” he told a forum organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.
President Thein Sein has held dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and has released several hundred political prisoners, among reforms launched since his nominally civilian government took power from the military junta last March.
But the country remains tightly governed with a constitution that is impossible to amend without the backing of the military, which had governed the country for decades under harsh rule.
Mathieson said the military is especially resistant to change, adding, “No one knows what’s happening within the military.”
“The only thing we can discern is that they’re just as abusive as ever,” he said.
'A culture of sadism'
Mathieson noted that in fighting with ethnic armies in Burma’s Kachin State, bordering China, Burmese military units have fired on civilians, destroyed property, and subjected civilians to forced labor and rape.
Human Rights Watch interviews with former soldiers and their civilian victims have revealed a “[military] culture of almost recreational sadism,” Mathieson said.
Many of the ethnic armed groups fighting Burma’s military also commit atrocities, though their abuses have not been as well-documented as those of the Burmese army, Mathieson said.
“A lot of these groups have gotten away with this for years. They do abuse their own population. In some cases, they execute Burmese prisoners of war, which is a very serious war crime.”
Mathieson also said there has been no marked improvement in the general human rights situation in Burma.
“Yes, people in Rangoon and in other major urban centers do feel free to talk, and freedoms of the press have certainly improved. But a lot of what is happening is technically illegal.”
“There are still laws on the books to inhibit freedom of association and freedom of expression,” Mathieson said.
“Now if the government is just allowing that to happen, fine and well. But it’s still technically illegal, and there could be a snap, and it could all go backward.”
Many prisoners remain
Mathieson noted that Burma’s government has now freed a large number of political prisoners, including “many prominent” figures, in a move widely welcomed around the world.
“[But] we still think that there are several hundred political prisoners remaining in Burmese prisons. The real number is almost impossible to calculate.”
On a visit to Burma’s former capital Rangoon two weeks ago, Mathieson said, he attended a public briefing on the long-running armed ethnic conflict in the country's Kachin State.
The briefing was held in a hotel and was attended by Kachin community-based activists, Burmese dissidents, foreign diplomats, UN workers, and NGOs.
“It was quite remarkable that they were allowed to speak in the open in Rangoon,” he said.
“This is the paradox of the new Burma,” Mathieson said, “that issues are allowed to be talked about … and yet grave human rights violations continue to occur.”
Reported by Richard Finney.