Patchy Welcome for U.N. Envoy in Burma

As United Nations envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana arrived in Burma today to begin a review of the country’s reform progress, authorities reportedly rolled out an unusually patchy welcome mat.

On the one hand, days before the visit, authorities released Tin Oo, deputy head of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, ending seven years of imprisonment and house arrest. And the 83-year-old’s vow to immediately resume his political activities didn’t result in any immediate retribution.

On the other hand, opposition leaders told the Associated Press that on the following day, authorities sentenced four women to two years imprisonment with hard labor for their activism on behalf of Suu Kyi’s release on Tuesday.

It is not uncommon for repressive authorities to release prisoners or otherwise move to free up the rights space in their countries ahead of visits or reviews by international dignitaries, although they also sometimes merely ignore the issue. When they do act, the moves are usually cosmetic, and temporary.

But the ruling junta in Burma has long fought off widespread and persistent criticism of its rights record, ignoring pressure from the international community and brushing off any concerns over sanctions. The generals like to go it alone and revel in thumbing their noses at international engagement. Even after Cyclone Nargis carved a deadly path through the Irrawaddy Delta, the ruling junta opened up the country to international disaster response and aid efforts grudgingly — and very temporarily.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the junta is trumpeting its plans for elections later this year as part of a broader reform process, it’s unlikely we would be witnessing any sort of movement from the reclusive leadership at all.

Human rights groups have repeatedly questioned the Burmese junta’s commitment to real reform. Amnesty International released a scathing new report (.pdf) on the eve of Quintana’s visit charging the junta with using the process to further crack down against dissent and ethnic minorities.

“The government of Myanmar should use the elections as an opportunity to improve its human rights record, not as a spur to increase repression of dissenting voices, especially those from the ethnic minorities,” AI expert Benjamin Zawacki said in a press release.

For now, what little movement we are seeing from the junta remains a decidedly mixed bag.

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