New Regime Preventing Democratization in Burma—Pinheiro

Burma’s new regime is stifling any hope of democratic transition by arresting and jailing political and ethnic opposition leaders, the UN human rights investigator to the Southeast Asian country said Tuesday.

Speaking before the UN Human Rights Commission, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said there would be no democratic progress until all political dissidents were released. There are some 1,300 such prisoners, he said.

“Without these basic requirements, it would be extremely difficult or even impossible to launch a process of genuine transition to democratization,” he said. “Democratization cannot emerge from a unilaterally controlled, restrictive environment.”

Burma defended its crackdown on political dissent, telling the commission that some members of the National League for Democracy, or NLD, the main opposition to the military junta, were guilty of inciting public disorder.

“Action had to be taken against some members of the NLD, as it was one of their activities which posed a threat to the peace and stability of the state, national unity and solidarity,” Ambassador Nyunt Maung Shein told the commission.

In October, Burma’s prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt was forced out of his post in a move seen as a maneuver of hardline generals opposed to political reform.

A year earlier, Nyunt Maung Shein announced plans for a “road map to democracy” that eventually would lead to free elections.

While the junta since then has pledged commitment to the road map process, Pinheiro said he was disappointed by the current administration, which “did not appear to signal any new policy direction” aimed at democratic reform.

Barred from entering the country since November 2003, Pinheiro based his findings on meetings with campaigners, human-rights investigators and other governments.

He said that recent cases of arrest, trial and imprisonment for peaceful political activity, including some politicians from Burma’s ethnic Shan community, indicated the new government was bent on continuing the repressive measures of its predecessor.

“I am therefore very distressed the recent leadership changes in Myanmar (Burma) do not seem to have led to greater tolerance for the peaceful expression of views and advocacy for democracy and human rights,” Pinheiro said.

He also criticized the junta for allowing the military to confiscate land, destroy civilian homes, engage in sexual violence and use of forced labor.

Such violations were especially severe in areas populated by ethnic minorities, Pinheiro said, singling out the northwestern area of the state of Arakan, where many Bengali-speaking Muslims live.

“During the reporting period, mosques continued to be demolished, the freedom of movement of the (Bengali-speaking Muslims) remained excessively restricted, and the vast majority of that minority remained de facto stateless,” he said.

Nyunt Maung Shein rejected the allegations, saying his government was making every effort to maximize inclusiveness in its “seven-stage road map to democracy.”

He rejected the allegation that mosques were demolished, calling it unfounded.

March 30, 2005 By Bradley S. Klapper/AP Writer/Geneva

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