Thursday, August 4, 2016

Weekly Highlights: Blacklist of Border-based Pro-democracy and Rights Activists Must be Removed to Ensure Greater Civil Society Space

 

25 - 31 July 2016

Weekly Highlights

Blacklist of Border-based Pro-democracy and Rights Activists Must be Removed to Ensure Greater Civil Society Space


40 civil society organizations (CSOs) operating along Burma's borders submitted an open letter directed to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi this past week. The letter, released on 25 July, 2016, made a request for the greater inclusion of border-based CSOs during the transition process. A representative from the Women's League of Burma, Thwel Zin Toe, confirmed the intent of the letter stating, "We believe that, with the experience and skills gained on the border, we can support and help strengthen the process of national reconciliation, peace building and the democratic transition. Therefore, we would like the Government to consider restoring our original citizenship status and set necessary guidelines for this as soon as possible." In addition, Thwel Zin Toe echoed a call from the letter to remove the border-based CSO actors and activists from a blacklist created under the former military-backed government.

Unfortunately, the arrival of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government has yet to address the problems faced by border-based CSOs and democracy activists who desire to return to their homeland for good. Another spokesperson for the CSOs, Saw Alex, stated that they continue to face obstacles under the current Government, including restrictions on public statements, being prohibited from holding meetings and press conferences, and intimidation and harassment. In fact, the Democratic Voice of Burma has estimated that up to 4,000 individuals are still blacklisted, with much uncertainty surrounding whether border-based CSO actors and pro-democracy activists are on the list or whether they are able to return to Burma without further prosecution.

According to the media, on 28 July, 2016, the Burma Government removed 607 names from the blacklist, or roughly 7.5% of the 8,000 list of names recorded by the previous government. While this is a positive step undertaken by the current NLD-led Government, its ministries must release all the names of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists on the blacklist and allow them to return to Burma and restore their citizenship. For those who have already been removed from the blacklist, the lack of publicly available information regarding their status and the government's response to the media - "no such category of 'political and democracy activists in exile' has ever existed in the blacklist" - is problematic. Thus, a further request of the 40 CSOs is to release the names of delisted individuals, as no one knows whether they are still on the list or not, or what problems they will face upon their return or within their operations in Burma.

Meanwhile, some people are still facing unfair treatment from embassies when they apply for a visa even after their names appeared on the Government's list of removed names back in 2012. One clear example is the case of Dr. Sein Win, the first cousin of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and former Prime Minister of the Burmese Government in exile, which was dissolved in 2012 after the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He applied for a visa recently in the US but was asked by the embassy to sign a bond which promised not to meet anyone or engage in political activities back in Burma. Understandably, he did not sign the bond.

The fact that many exiled human rights defenders remain blacklisted is hardly a surprise, as even domestically-based activists also face ongoing obstacles. Tin Htut Paing, an organizer of the 2007 Saffron Revolution and a subsequent political prisoner until 2016, is one of many activists who believes he is continually being monitored by the government. Further, online activists have continued to be charged and convicted for speaking out online. In May 2016, a youth poet, Maung Saungkha was convicted for posting a poem back in November 2015 that was deemed insulting to the former President. This is coupled with the continued restrictions on space for the freedom of expression, as noted in the censorship of the Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess film at the Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival and in the cancellation of a Ta'ang Women's Organization conference for the launch of a report on human rights violations, both of which occurred in June 2016.

In her end-of-mission statement, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Yangee Lee, observed a clear lack of consultation with CSOs during the formation of the Burma Government's various 100-day plans. The importance of civil society in a transitioning country cannot be overstated – these organizations demand a degree of accountability from the Government on matters ranging from the promotion and protection of human rights to ideals of an inclusive democracy. By maintaining the blacklist of CSOs and democracy activists, both in exile and inside the country, the Burma Government is missing out on an opportunity to engage with the experience of numerous human rights defenders; many of whom have experienced first-hand the anti-democratic policies and actions of the country's former military leadership. If the present NLD-led Government wishes to create a truly democratic culture within Burma, it must allow the development of a vibrant civil society that is free from harassment, persecution and limited freedoms of expression, assembly and association. Thus, it must facilitate the return of those who played a role in the country's struggle for democracy from exile at its most-needed time while it was under the iron fist of military rule.

 

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