Since national elections were held in late 2010, and the first civilian government for decades was formed, Burma has undergone significant change.

In May 2012 our researchers entered the country for the first time in nine years (PDF). They returned with reports of a society that has set out on the road to human rights reform, but that still has a long way to go.

Positive reforms

In August 2011 the government carried out a series of limited political and economic reforms: political prisoners were released, media censorship was slightly relaxed, an improved labour law was passed and the National Human Rights Commission was established. Peaceful protest is now allowed under certain conditions.

In April 2012, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – who has spent most of the last 24 years under house arrest - was elected as a member of the Burmese Parliament.

But despite these positive steps towards human rights, serious abuses continue. These abuses disproportionately affect those living in ethnic minority areas. Impunity for perpetrators is written into law.

Restrictions on freedom of religion and belief continue. And while hundreds of political prisoners have been released since May 2011, many remain behind bars.  

Detained for peaceful political acts

For decades the Burmese authorities have detained men and women just because of the views they hold, or because of who they are. We consider these people Prisoners of Conscience and have continually campaigned for their immediate and unconditional release.

In May 2011 the Burmese authorities began a series of prisoner amnesties that have since freed thousands, including hundreds of prisoners of conscience. But many more men and women remain behind bars despite no clear evidence that they ever committed a crime.

Due to the terrible state of prisoner records in Burma, we cannot know exactly how many prisoners remain wrongly detained. But we do know that political prisoners, some of them Prisoners of Conscience, continue to languish in cells. Many have been falsely charged or convicted of serious offences after unfair trials. Some convictions rely on ‘confessions’ obtained under torture.

We have been calling on the government to implement a review of all prisoners to determine the true number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in the country. In February 2013, just months after we wrote an open letter to President Thein Sein (PDF), he announced plans for an inter-government review into all prisoner cases

Ongoing violence

Armed forces and Kachin Independence Army battle in Kachin and northern Shan States

In June 2011 the Burmese army broke its ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) when the army has used airstrikes to target KIO outposts in the Kachin and northern Shan States.

Despite the resumption of peace talks in early 2013, this violent and bloody conflict persists. It has forced over 75,000 ethnic Kachin civilians to leave their homes.

Clashes between the Buddhist Rakhine and Rohingya Muslim communities in Rakhine State

On 28 May 2012, a 27-year-old Buddhist Rakhine woman was raped and killed in Maungdaw, Rakhine State. The next day police detained three Muslim suspects. On 3 June, 300 Rakhines stopped a bus and beat 10 Muslim passengers to death - they claim that they believed the rapists were on board.

Violent clashes between the two communities followed. They left hundreds dead and many more injured.

Although both are affected by the violence, the Muslim communities have been the primary victims. Over 100,000 were forced to leave their homes and are living in temporary shelters with limited access to food, medical care or sanitation.

Free speech

Since reforms began in 2011 the Burmese authorities have managed to both relax and tighten restrictions on free speech.

Although media censorship has been slightly eased, laws including the Printers and Publishers Registration Law and the Electronics Transactions Act ensure that the industry remains tightly controlled. These laws are illegal.

In July 2012 the government enacted the 2011 Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. Despite its positive title, the law requires protestors to apply at least five days in advance for permission to demonstrate and is used to detain peaceful protestors. Those charged under the law face up to one year in prison for each township entered.

Read more about Burma in our 2013 Annual Report