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US, Myanmar Officials Discuss Political Progress, Human Rights

FILE - Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski speaks at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain, Dec. 4, 2014.
FILE - Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski speaks at a press conference in Manama, Bahrain, Dec. 4, 2014.

U.S. and Myanmar officials held talks this week on civilian control of the military, political prisoners, land rights, and other issues. At the end of the visit, a U.S. special human rights envoy raised concerns about Myanmar’s political reforms ahead of national elections this year.

In talks with senior Myanmar's (also known as Burma) government leaders, Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said Friday the U.S. is concerned about the impact of growing religious intolerance on Myanmar’s future democratic reforms.

“We expressed a concern that the use of religion in particular, to divide people - whether it is done for political or any other purposes, is incredibly dangerous, particularly in an election year. We expressed a concern that this is really playing with fire and expose the country to dangers that it is not prepared to handle,” Malinowski explained.

His comments came at the end of talks aimed at assessing Myanmar’s rights record through the U.S. - Myanmar human rights dialogue.

In a joint statement at the end of the second human rights dialogue, the United States said it recognized the positive efforts that Myanmar’s government has made in addressing human rights challenges, the effort to hold a productive dialogue on labor rights, and to amend Myanmar’s constitution and laws.

Lost momentum

But Malinowski said there are fears the reform program is losing momentum against a backdrop of continuing arrests of prisoners of conscience and ongoing fighting between the armed forces and ethnic minorities in the north-east.

“There is a great deal of skepticism in some quarters about whether the reform process is continuing and fears about tensions and other problems that might arise in a year in which the election will be first and foremost in people’s minds,” he said, adding that the main question is whether the government is able to maintain the trust of people generally.

The first round of talks were held in 2012 when Myanmar was in the first flush of political and economic reforms marked by opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi’s renewed public role in the nation’s politics.

The talks, which Malinowski described as “full, frank, constructive and productive,” included calls for Myanmar’s armed forces to respect human rights, humanitarian law, and be brought under civilian control.

Conflict zones

In regions such as the northeast, in Kachin and Shan states, fighting is ongoing. Malinowski says while some improvement in humanitarian aid access had taken place, more is needed to reach all those displaced by the conflict.

The U.S. delegation also raised humanitarian concerns over the ongoing plight of the Muslim Rohingya from western Rakhine State, where more than one million people remain stateless. The Myanmar government says the people are Bengalis from neighboring Bangladesh.

Brutal inter-ethnic conflict erupted in in 2012, leaving more than 240 dead. An estimated 140,000 Rohingya are still living in temporary camps. Thousands are also fleeing abroad, risking perilous journeys by sea.

Malinowski said the U.S. is calling for “unfettered humanitarian access to all people in the region,” to set in place plans to move people out of camps and allow for a “non-discriminatory citizenship process”.

“It is in no countries’ interest to keep a large part of its population disenfranchised, to keep a large part of its population as second class citizens," Malinowski said. "The best way to ensure stability and prosperity is to ensure that everybody has a stake in Myanmar’s future.”

The talks also raised concerns about laws curbing interfaith marriage, land confiscation and land reform. The laws on interfaith marriage and limits on religious conversion, pushed by hard line Buddhist groups, are soon expected to be debated in Myanmar’s parliament.