April 22, 2012
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda
Cabinet Secretariat, Government of Japan
1-6-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo 100-8968, Japan
Re: Japan: Actively encourage the Burmese government to institute the systemic reforms necessary for Democracy
Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,
I am William Nicholas Gomes, Human Rights Ambassador for Salem News.com. I recognize the encouraging signs of change in Burma in the past year, including easing of official censorship, a new law on the right to strike, and amendments to electoral laws that permitted Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to register and contest April by-elections, in which her party won almost all the seats it contested.
However, the overall human rights situation remains poor. Despite a series of releases of political prisoners, several hundred political prisoners remain incarcerated. Laws promulgated in recent months, including on peaceful assembly, fall short of international requirements. The newly created National Human Rights Commission also does not meet the standards of the Paris Principles on national human rights bodies, and the commission has yet to seriously investigate complaints of human rights abuses.
Burma is involved in the world’s longest running civil war, with the Burmese army engaged in armed conflicts with armed groups of various ethnic nationalities around the country. The government has embarked on ceasefire negotiations with a number of ethnic armed groups. However, army abuses against ethnic minorities continue and the armed forces have not changed their abusive behavior in ethnic conflict areas. For instance, fighting has been ongoing since June 2011 in Kachin State, with 75,000 people displaced as a result. The Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, beatings, abusive forced labor, antipersonnel landmines, and pillaging of property. Kachin rebels have been implicated in the use of child soldiers and landmines.
Burma’s April by-elections brought opposition voices into parliament, which is an important step forward. However, the by-elections should not be used as a justification for unrestrained resumption of assistance and investment. Pursuing renewed foreign assistance and investment without regard for the human rights consequences and in the absence of a functioning legal framework, could derail Burma’s fragile gains of the past year.
Debt Relief and Yen Loans
I understand the Japanese government will soon announce the resumption of its yen loans for development assistance inside Burma. Before Japan restarts giving loans to Burma, it will need to decide what to do about the unpaid debt estimated at over 500 billion yen (US$6 billion) that the Burmese government owes Japan from loans from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. We understand there is ongoing discussion on how to address these arrears, including whether to cancel all or part of the debt and what should be the conditions to cancel any debt.
Japan’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), including yen loans, is based on the 1991 “Four Principles of ODA” and the ODA Charter of 1992. Japan has pledged in its fourth principle, to pay full attention to democracy, basic human rights, and freedoms in its aid decisions. Restrictions by foreign governments, including Japan freezing its loans to Burma, have played a role in moving Burma to the hopeful point where it is today. While most of the pressure for change has come from within, the government now wants international legitimacy, and greater economic engagement with the outside world.
I call on the Japanese government to maintain sufficient leverage to be able to influence the much harder financial, economic planning, political, and social development issues that Burma needs to address. A staggered pay back of longstanding debt tied with partial alleviation would help ensure that human rights considerations are taken into account with respect to these issues, including promoting a more equitable distribution of resources than during the decades of corrupt military rule.
Regarding economic assistance, I recognize the desire of the Japanese government and people to assist Burma’s transition from authoritarian rule to a more open political and economic system. Therefore any resumption of yen loans should be done in a way that supports economic development that benefits the Burmese people broadly, not contribute to corruption, cronyism, environmental degradation, and displacement. In short, Japanese assistance should help improve the human rights situation in Burma, not undermine reform efforts. It is also important to restart loans that would strengthen the hands of those acting to promote human rights and rule of law in the country, while putting at a disadvantage those holding progress back— including military leaders still engaged in human rights abuses in conflict areas and military-owned companies. Loans should be resumed step by step, over a period of several years, in response to significant and specific steps towards reform and greater respect for human rights by the Burmese government.
Prospective ODA projects in ethnic and borderland areas should be planned with particular care and transparency. Natural resource industries in these are monopolized by the military, managed in a way that fuels corruption, and have the effect of increasing the autonomy and impunity of the military vis-à-vis civilian officials. These sectors are also concentrated in areas of the country still beset by conflict, where the military continues to commit grave human rights abuses against the civilian population.
Restarting yen loan and any debt abolition should proceed in a manner that recognizes progress but preserves the leverage of the Japanese government and of Burma’s opposition and civil society, in the lead-up to the most important test of the government’s commitment to change, the 2015 elections.
Burmese government actions that could trigger positive responses include, for example:
- Releasing all remaining political prisoners;
- Instituting a credible process to review cases in which there is a disagreement about whether the person is imprisoned for political reasons;
- Allowing international and domestic humanitarian organizations, and independent human rights monitors unhindered access to conflict areas and the delivery of adequate amounts and kinds of humanitarian aid;
- Taking all necessary steps to end serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma’s conflict areas, investigate allegations of abuses, appropriately discipline and prosecute perpetrators, and promptly and adequately compensate victims of abuse;
- Reforming laws that criminalize free expression and that allow censorship of the media;
- Bringing Burmese law and practice into conformity with international standards on fundamental freedoms, including expression, association, and peaceful assembly;
- Amending constitutional provisions that empower the military over the civilian government and that prevent it from being accountable to civilian authority;
- Creating a climate conducive to free and fair elections in 2015; and affirming that the government is prepared to transfer power to whoever wins those elections;
- Fulfilling all of the recommendations of the ILO Commission of Inquiry on Forced Labor in Burma;
- Establishing fiscal transparency in order to ensure the profits from natural resources benefit the people of Burma and are not squandered or stolen;
I do not advocate that the Japanese government or other actors develop or endorse a precise roadmap or matrix to restart yen loans, in which they promise specific rewards in exchange for specific steps such as those listed above. I recognize that significant actions by the Burmese government should trigger positive responses, but pre-arranged inducements could be counter-productive, including if the international community is forced to reward a step forward in one area while the Burmese government is stepping back in another. The international community should maintain the flexibility to respond appropriately if progress in one area in Burma is accompanied by setbacks in another. At every stage, it should consult with opposition leaders, civil society groups (including trade unions), and reformers in the government before moving forward.
Development that Emphasizes Respect for Human Rights
When conditions in Burma warrant the Japanese government moving to permit restarting yen loans, I encourage Japan to consider these important recommendations in its increase of aid programs.
The Japanese government should effectively engage with the Burmese people and civil society, and be transparent in developing proposals for working in Burma.
The Japanese government should actively and effectively engage with a broad range of civil society organizations in developing its proposals for working in Burma. In addition to civil society organizations in Rangoon and the capital, Naypyidaw, the Japanese government should engage with groups working in remote and conflict areas, and with those working on Burma from Thailand and other neighboring countries. Except for government officials, few residents in remote and conflict areas in Burma travel to Rangoon and Naypyidaw. People in these areas often face acute humanitarian needs, and receive little support from local officials. The Japanese government should ensure that the Burmese government grants assessment teams access to remote and conflict areas.
In the past, some activists have been imprisoned as a result of meeting or working with foreign officials, for instance in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Japan should obtain assurances from the Burmese government that no one who engages with the Japanese government shall face reprisals. To ensure active engagement with the Burmese populace, the Japanese government should be transparent in developing its proposals for engagement, both inside Japan and Burma. The fact that Burma has been a closed country for so long makes it all the more necessary that the Japanese government is transparent, and is viewed to be as such.
The Japanese government should give priority to addressing urgent social needs and emphasize revenue and budget transparency together with anti-corruption measures with the Burmese government.
The Japanese government should make a priority of addressing urgent social needs, with a particular focus on health and education. As a component of its assessments and technical assistance, the Japanese government should emphasize revenue and budget transparency, and ensure that Burma’s own considerable resources are directed to poverty alleviation programs. For years the government of Burma’s revenues from natural gas sales have been largely hidden from the budget—and reportedly kept in overseas accounts—and not used to fulfill basic economic and social rights of the population. Plans to unify the country’s exchange rate system should help to correct some budgetary anomalies, but much work will be needed to ensure that all proceeds of natural resource extraction are fully on-budget. In addition, it will be necessary to trace and recover funds earned previously in order for those to be available to meet current and future needs.
Addressing corruption and unequal economic opportunities presents a particular challenge in Burma. The Japanese government should take special care to avoid further bolstering the economic elite who cultivated close ties to military authorities, and gained privileged access to state resources. The Japanese government should urge the Burmese government to dismantle the military’s vast network of businesses that it owns or controls, and to fundamentally reevaluate the military’s outsized share of the national budget.
In promoting better financial management, Japan should encourage the Burmese government to create independent oversight bodies, audit all government departments and government spending and make public these audits, make bidding and tendering for government procurement processes open and publish results, and make public contracts for natural resource extraction and sales.
The Japanese government should press the Burmese authorities to implement systemic reforms necessary for development.
I urge Japan to actively encourage the Burmese government to institute the systemic reforms necessary for open public debate, enabling citizens to hold the government accountable, as we believe that development assistance will not have the broad-based impact desired unless these reforms are undertaken. This includes repealing overbroad and vague laws used to repress the peaceful exercise of rights to expression, association and assembly.
Japan should emphasize in its meetings Burmese government ministries and agencies the importance of broad civil society engagement and its centrality to any programming. It should encourage the Burmese government to enhance access to information and subject decision-making processes to public discussion and input at all levels. Examples include community budgeting initiatives, public consultations about proposed legal reforms and the creation of independent oversight bodies.
There are severe labor rights problems in Burma, including abusive forced labor in combat zones. We urge the Japanese government to ensure that it does not directly or indirectly support such abuses. Japanese aid officials should regularly consult with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ensure that any allegations of forced labor tied to Japanese aid projects be investigated under the Burmese government and ILO Supplementary Understanding of 2007, and that all aid projects pursue the target set by the ILO of eradicating all forced labor by 2015.
There are growing problems in Burma with land confiscation and inadequate compensation, particularly for farmers. Burma should enact new land laws that provide security of land tenure for people, particularly small-scale farmers, and meet international human rights standards. Currently farmers cannot use land as collateral since they do not have legal land titles, creating economic hardship and rendering them vulnerable to forced eviction. Two land reform bills have recently passed in parliament, the Farmland Bill and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Bill. However, there has not been adequate consultation on the bills and there are concerns that the laws will not provide security of tenure or adequate appeal mechanisms. Too much authority appears to rest with farmland management bodies controlled by the state, including powers to order what can be cultivated on particular land. I urge the Japanese government to encourage the Burmese government to seek assistance from international experts in developing new land laws to ensure that they meet international human rights standards, and to consult broadly with agricultural and legal experts, farmers’ groups, and other affected elements of civil society. Land reform should be undertaken together with other legal reforms to ensure access to justice when rights are violated.
Thank you for your consideration of these important issues. I would be delighted to meet with you or your staff to discuss these issues in more detail.
William Nicholas Gomes
Human Rights Ambassador for Salem News.com