Burma continues to be a contradictory and frustrating nation when it comes to human rights, making gains in some areas while remaining woefully behind in others, according to Human Rights Watch’s 2014 world report.
HRW highlighted four key areas: violence against Muslims, laws on basic freedoms, ethnic conflict and displacement, and key international actors.
Muslim communities in several parts of the country were targeted in violent attacks in 2013, resulting in deaths, destruction, and increasing unrest. This attitude has been driven in part by notorious Buddhist monk U Wirathu, who has encouraged anti-Muslim sentiment. HRW noted that no political leaders, including the often revered Aung San Suu Kyi, came forward to denounce the anti-Muslim violence, furthering the grave situation.
The Rohingya Muslim of Rakhine (also known as Arakan) state are among the most persecuted groups in the country. HRW reported that more aid reached the Rohingya in 2013 than in 2012 but that “serious concerns remain over restrictions on movement, lack of livelihoods, inadequate basic services, and continued threats from hostile Arakanese.” Those who protest their situation run the risk of abuse and even death, and Human Rights Watch described the violence and hostility toward the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing campaigns and crimes against humanity.
The legislative situation remains tenuous, with proposed laws on the press and the establishment of NGOs often quite repressive. Backlash against these resulted in some reforms, but the fact that the government continues to try to exert such control is troubling. Though the media industry continues to grow in Burma, proposed legislation could restrict media freedoms and the government has already demonstrated it will not hesitate to ban what it deems incendiary materials or reporting (as in the case of the issue of TIME magazine featuring Wirathu on the cover).
The report reaffirmed that despite ceasefire agreements between the government and ethnic rebel groups, there are still many reports of military attacks on the ethnic communities. Hundreds of thousands of people are still displaced in eastern Burma and along the Thai-Burmese border, and the situation still looks grim as “Thailand, Burma, and the UN refugee agency have agreed that conditions for the refugees’ return in safety and dignity are not yet present.”
The Burmese government continues to develop ties to the international community, working out military agreements with the United States and United Kingdom, and celebrating the lifting and suspension of sanctions by the European Union and the United States.
Burma’s President Thein Sein paid visits to the U.S., U.K. and Australia and continued to assure those governments that Burma was committed to improving the human rights situation, though there is little evidence to support that claim. HRW noted that attempts to establish an office for a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burma were “repeatedly blocked” by the government, and the country’s National Human Rights Commission “continues to receive numerous reports of alleged human rights violations but it has not adequately investigated the reports.”