Letter to Barack Obama, President of the United States - Pressing for Democratic Reforms in Burma


Dear President Obama,

We are deeply concerned about the situation in Burma, including stalled reforms, back-tracking on core commitments and the government's targeting of ethnic and religious minorities with shocking policies of hate and discrimination. We strongly urge you to insist during your second trip to the country that these issues be addressed and make clear that the United States will not support full normalization of our relations absent genuine change.

With respect to stalled reforms, we understand the current government claims it will hold elections in late 2015. Yet, over a year before the election and despite the fact that President Thein Sein's own party dominates the committee that would initiate Constitutional changes, the military-backed Constitution continues to arbitrarily bar the leader of the opposition party, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from being eligible to compete on equal footing for the Presidency.

This has created a situation in which the election cannot by definition be fully free, fair or credible because the Burmese people can't elect a leader of their own choosing. This same constitution also guarantees 25% of seats in parliament lie in the control of the Commander in Chief. This cannot be the basis of a truly democratic society.

We are also deeply concerned about the increasing number of political prisoners and detainees. President Thein Sein and his advisors have made a clear commitment to the international community that they will release all prisoners. Yet, the number of political prisoners has steadily increased since the beginning of this year, while those who have been released are still forced to serve suspended sentences -- a situation which discourages them from participating in politics because they could be returned to prison, for decades, at any moment.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that the press freedom is being eroded.

Long sentences were recently handed down to investigative journalists, and a climate of fear is growing amongst those who wish to report on key issues relating to the Burmese economy and society. This has led the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for the country to say "In recent months many of my interlocutors have seen the shrinking of that space for civil society and the media."

Further, we are concerned about the government's treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, as attacks against the Kachin, Shan and others illustrate. Tens of thousands, including Christian Kachin, remain stuck in stark internal displacement camps where the government refuses to allow unimpeded international humanitarian aid. Land grabs are also endemic and are a clear threat to change.

And, it has become clearer than ever that Thein Sein's government is provoking and catering to anti-Muslim violence, circulating a draft plan that would force even more Rohingya Muslim men, women and children into internment camps. The draft plan's clearly stated intention of interning the Rohingya follows violence that has already displaced approximately 140,000 people over the past two years. This is not an isolated issue but the latest in a series of decisions by Thein Sein's government impacting minority Muslims -- including proposing discriminatory laws to parliament, maintaining restrictions on even the most basic freedoms like movement and marriage, and still preventing Doctors Without Borders from operating freely and fully to provide life-saving care to people with no other services. This has now become a clear pattern interrupted mainly by promises, but insufficient action, to end the discrimination and violence. That has resulted in horrifying images of emaciated and dying children.

The United States should not continue to support significant advancements in our relations under these conditions. The constitution must be amended to ensure that the Burmese people can choose their own leader, attacks on ethnic minorities must come to an end, and the government and military must responsibly participate in national reconciliation efforts. Urgently, the Burmese government must put an immediate end to its policy of keeping the minority Rohingya population stateless, displaced, and in a constant state of humanitarian crisis.

The United States should continue to engage diplomatically, but must recognize and act upon these important issues.

We urge that these issues remain at the top of your agenda in Burma and that you seek specific steps to resolve them. These issues are directly within the power of the current government and military to change, and unless they do so Burma will not be making the transition that was promised to the world and that the Burmese people deserve.