India: Press Burmese Leader on Human Rights

by editor | 26th July 2010 9:52 am

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State Visit by Than Shwe Offers Opportunity to Reverse Failed Approach

(New York) – India should emphasize respect for human rights during the state visit by Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe, Human Rights Watch said today. Economic and security interests should not displace concerns about protecting the Burmese people’s fundamental freedoms.

Than Shwe, the head of Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), will conduct a state visit to India from July 25-29, 2010, where he will hold high-level meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior officials. Than Shwe’s visit comes amidst preparations for elections in Burma later this year, which so far have been characterized by continued repression of the political opposition.

“India’s long democratic tradition should bolster leaders’ ability to insist on a free and fair election in Burma,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “New Delhi should use Than Shwe’s visit to send a message loud and clear that Burma’s failure to respect human rights and establish genuine democracy retards Burma’s development and creates political difficulties for India and other states in the region.”

The Indian government has unfortunately moved away from supporting democratic forces in Burma, including detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Human Rights Watch said. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won Burma’s 1990 elections but was kept from power, has now been de-registered under draconian electoral laws issued in March 2010.

India’s official criticism of the electoral process in Burma has generally been muted. There are more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, many of them pro-democracy activists arrested following peaceful demonstrations in 2007. The date of the elections has not been publically announced. Government restrictions on basic freedoms of assembly, expression, and movement present serious obstacles for campaigning in the elections.

In recent weeks, the military fronted the formation of a new political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is led by Prime Minister Thein Sein and several recently retired generals, and tacitly approved the party’s merger with the government-controlled social welfare association, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), composed of approximately 25 million nominal members.

Human Rights Watch said that the planned elections cannot be free and fair under existing conditions and that the new government will not be a significant departure from the current military government. Specific constitutional provisions reserve seats for the Burmese military in both houses of parliament and key ministries, which ensures that current and former military officials will dominate the new government.

“Conjuring up political parties and fixing their victory while the opposition and dissidents remain imprisoned or silenced is no democracy,” said Pearson. “India should demand the same standards of free and fair voting in Burma that it applies to itself.”

India has not joined with other democratic governments in taking a tough line against human rights violations in Burma. The United States has imposed a series of trade and financial sanctions against the military government, while the European Union has maintained a Common Position which includes sanctions, travel bans on key military leaders and their families, and a ban on exports of military equipment.

India has engaged in an economic and military rapprochement with Burma since the mid-1990s, in part to counter the perceived growth of Chinese influence.

Human Rights Watch has called on states to impose targeted financial sanctions on new investment in Burma’s oil and gas sector and prohibit financial transactions with entities owned or controlled by the Burmese military, or whose revenues are largely used to finance military activities. These entities include the Burmese government’s Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a state company under the Ministry of Energy whose earnings benefit the military.

India is a major investor in Burma’s burgeoning energy sector. For example, two Indian government-controlled companies, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (through its subsidiary, ONGC Videsh) and Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL), are partners with a total 25.5-percent interest (17 percent and 8.5 percent respectively) in the consortium (headed by South Korea’s Daewoo International) that is working to extract natural gas from major deposits located in the Shwe fields off the coast of Arakan state in western Burma. Since 2007 Human Rights Watch has called for targeted sanctions on Burma’s energy sector, which provides the largest single source of foreign exchange earnings that help sustain military rule.

India is involved in other sectors of Burma’s economy, including manufacturing and infrastructure. For example, it is investing heavily in the Kaladan river project to dramatically expand sea and river traffic between Burma and India, as well as in hydro-power and road construction projects in western Burma. There is also a significant trade between the two countries. India is now Burma’s fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, China, and Singapore. However, India’s hope to win equal or greater influence than China is misplaced, as became obvious when the contract to import natural gas from the Shwe fields was awarded to China, despite intense Indian bidding.

“Even as it loses out in its efforts to counter China’s influence, India has mortgaged its voice on political and human rights issues in Burma,” said Pearson. “Than Shwe may think that a trip to New Delhi will be all about business and military relations, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should make a point to publicly voice principled criticism over the rigging of Burma’s electoral laws and continued restrictions on basic freedoms in Burma.”

India has also expressed strategic concerns about insurgencies along its borders with Burma. The Indian armed forces have increased counterinsurgency cooperation with the Burmese army against Burma-based militants who conduct operations inside Manipur, Assam, and other parts of northeast India. India supplied the Burmese army with military hardware including artillery and maritime surveillance aircraft for years but then unofficially suspended its arms sales in 2007 after the brutal crackdown on the protests led by Burmese monks. In March 2010, media reports said that India was planning to sell naval coastal patrol vessels to Burma, ahead of the visit by Lt. Gen. Thar Aye, chief of the Burmese army Bureau of Special Operations-1 (BSO-1) in charge of security for Burma’s western border with India.

Human Rights Watch urged the Indian government to cease provision of all weapons and other military assistance to Burma and support a call for a comprehensive United Nations Security Council arms embargo against Burma.

“Indian leaders should be profoundly discomforted to find themselves in the same company as chronic human rights abusers like North Korea and China furnishing weapons to Burma,” Pearson said. “By supporting real democracy and respect for human rights in Burma, New Delhi can reverse a flawed – and failed – policy of cynical engagement.”

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