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Monday, July 29, 2013

Human Rights, Civil Unrest, and Political Reform in Burma in 2013

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

An accurate and objective assessment of the status of human rights, civil unrest, and political reform in Burma is critical to congressional oversight of the Obama Administration’s conduct of U.S. policy towards the country, as well as any congressional examination of U.S. policy towards Burma. CRS Report R43035, U.S. Policy Towards Burma: Issues for the 113th Congress, examines the discernible shift in the conduct of U.S. policy towards Burma that has taken place over the last two years. CRS Report R42939, U.S. Sanctions on Burma: Issues for the 113th Congress, summarizes the existing U.S. economic and political sanctions imposed on the country, including the conditions with respect to human rights and democracy necessary to terminate those sanctions.

The Obama Administration and many other observers have focused their analysis on the apparent progress that has been made since Burma’s military junta transferred power to a new, quasicivilian government in 2011. These analyses highlight the country’s political reforms and human rights improvements, while acknowledging that the situation remains fragile and reversible.

This approach implicitly assumes that Burma’s political leaders, particularly President Thein Sein, are committed to making further political reforms designed to establish a democratic government that respects the human rights of its people. To date, neither Thein Sein nor the nation’s other political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have provided a fully detailed vision of post-reform Burma or a clear roadmap for continuing political reforms or addressing the grievances of ethnic minorities. One critical question for U.S. policy is how to address conditions in a country that has begun a process of political reform, but where substantial human rights abuses continue. Given current conditions, many observers believe it is unclear whether future political reform in Burma will be fully consistent with the goals established in U.S. laws that form the basis of U.S. policy in Burma.

This report examines the current situation in Burma from the implicit perspective shaped by U.S. laws setting policy toward Burma, and discusses the challenges of responding to reforms in a nation in political transition which has gone only part way to dealing with human rights abuses. In general, these laws establish a set of standards or thresholds to achieve before the sanctions are lifted and bilateral relations are normalized. Based on the criteria enumerated in laws, this report concludes: (1) prospects for an end to internal inter-ethnic conflict and national reconciliation appear slim in the short-run; (2) the critical political forces in Burma do not currently share a common vision of or path towards a democratic civilian government; and (3) human rights abuse remain a serious problem in Burma, and most civil liberties are subject to major restrictions.

With respect to specific criteria mentioned in sanctions laws—ending the nation’s ethnic conflicts, protecting human rights, and establishing a democratic civilian government based on the rule of law—the report recounts that (1) The ceasefire negotiations between the Burmese Government and various ethnic organizations appear to have stalled at a preliminary stage; (2) Ethnic and religious tensions have erupted in various parts of the country, leading to the deaths of dozens of people and the creation of thousands of internally displaced persons; (3) Reports of serious human rights abuses appear in the media on a regular basis, particularly accounts of the Burmese Army abusing non-combatants in conflict areas; (4) Hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention; (5) The status of the 2008 constitution is a pivotal issue for political reform and national reconciliation; and (6) The views of the Burmese military about the nation’s reforms remain unknown. This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.

Date of Report: June 20, 2013
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: R43132
Price: $29.95

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