Burma must allow political space for Aung San Suu Kyi
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Burma must allow political space for Aung San Suu Kyi

United States Senator John McCain warned Friday that Burma (Myanmar) could face a Middle East-style revolution if the new military-backed government fails to make serious democratic change and improve human rights.

McCain was in Burma to evaluate growth on transformation since a nominal civilian government took over from a military junta in March. Rights groups and critics say little has changed as the new government is merely a proxy for the military that has controlled power for decades.

However, McCain acknowledged that the new Thein Sein government has represented some change from the past, and one illustration of this change was their willingness to allow him to return to Burma after 15 years worth of attempts to do so on his part were rejected. But “without concrete actions by this government that signal a deeper commitment to democratic change, there should be no easing or lifting of sanctions,” Senator John McCain said.

Speaking to reporters at the end of a three-day visit, the Republican from Arizona said both countries want better relations, but that Burma’s government needs to take more steps toward democracy — including “the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.”

He also underscores the important of its human rights record in his press release.  “But as I told the government leaders I met yesterday, any improvement in relations will need to be built not on warm words, but on concrete actions. I and other U.S. leaders, including in Congress, will evaluate this new government’s commitment to real democratic change, and thus the willingness of the United States to make reciprocal changes, based on several tangible actions, as called for by the United Nations Human Rights Council in its Resolution of March 18, 2011,” the Republican from Arizona said.

The release of 2,000 political prisoners has been a top demand of Western nations that criticize Burma’s human rights record and are maintaining long-standing political and economic sanctions against military-backed government until it carries out reforms. McCain called on Burma to let the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) “unfettered” access to all prisoners in the country.

The organization has been unable to visit inmates here since the former military junta halted access in 2006. The ICRC, whose offices were ordered to be closed in 2006, released a press statement on this issue for the first time, 29 June 2007. The statement denounced the military regime for committing human rights violations against detainees and civilians. ”The repeated abuses committed against men, women and children living along the Thai-Myanmar border violate many provisions of international humanitarian law,” said Mr. Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC president. ICRC also demanded that the Burmese government take urgent action to end its abuses: “We urged the government of Myanmar to put a stop to all violations of international humanitarian law and to ensure that they do not recur”.

Actually, political prisoners have been unilaterally thrown into jail under unfair laws and trials in the absence of their lawyers.  The government’s penal code allows giving excessive sentences against political activists. For instance, article 5 (j) of the penal code allows authorities to impose 7 to 20 year prison terms on anyone who joined in peaceful protest or showing different opinion against the regime. Another article 505 provides an indefinite prison term for criticizing the authorities’ policies or behaviors.

Besides, the regime time and again prosecuted political prisoners under the Emergency Provision Act, Law to Safeguard the State against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts, Television and Video Act, Unlawful Association Act, Electronic Transactions Law, and Law Relating to the Forming of Organizations. The worst is that the regime usually extended prison sentences under the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements.

According to international legal standard, all 2,000 political prisoners have committed no crime at all. So, releasing of political prisoners should be the first and foremost of the political reform. Subsequently, the above mentioned undemocratic laws must be done away with as a necessity for change.

According to critics and watchdogs, the 7 November election, won by the military-backed political proxies, was flawed by widespread complaints of vote rigging and the exclusion of the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest shortly after  the polls.

Remarkably, McCain urged the Thein Sein government to guarantee the security of Suu Kyi, who planned to carry out a tour around the country that will be a key test of her freedom following her release.  In 2003, her convoy on a similar tour was attacked in an ambush apparently organized by a regime frightened by her popularity and she was arrested.

If Thein Sein government has capability and readiness to go along the political reform path, it must ensure the existence of the National League for Democracy and the essential role of Aung San Suu Kyi. To allow political space for Suu Kyi and starting a dialogue with her will be the concrete steps that needn’t take a lot of time for the new government.