Burma’s parliamentary government is headed by President Thein Sein. On April 1, the country held largely transparent and inclusive by-elections in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 43 of 45 contested seats out of a total 664 seats in the legislature. The by-elections contrasted sharply with the 2010 general elections, which were neither free nor fair. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) continued to hold an overwhelming majority of the seats in the national parliament and state/regional assemblies, and active-duty military officers continued to wield authority at each level of government. Military security forces reported to military channels, and civilian security forces, such as the police, reported to a nominally civilian ministry headed by an active-duty military general.
In 2012 the government’s continued reform efforts resulted in significant human rights improvements, although legal and policy revisions had yet to be implemented fully or consistently at the local level, particularly in ethnic nationality areas. On January 13, President Thein Sein released an estimated 300 political prisoners, including top figures of the prodemocracy movement and all imprisoned journalists, and amnestied an estimated 140 political prisoners in subsequent releases, though none of the 2012 releases were unconditional. The government eased longstanding restrictions imposed on its citizens, including by relaxing censorship laws governing the media, expanding labor rights and criminalizing forced labor, and returning professional licenses to practice law for the majority of lawyers who had been disbarred for political activities or for their representation of political activists. The government also eased restrictions on dissidents both from within and outside the country, including removal of more than 2,000 names from a government blacklist of persons barred from entering or leaving the country based on their suspected political activity.
An outbreak of communal violence in June between predominantly Buddhist Rakhine and predominantly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State claimed the lives of an estimated 100 civilians and displaced tens of thousands before the central government reestablished calm. Violence broke out again in October and resulted in deaths estimated to exceed 100 and the burning of more than 3,000 houses in predominantly Rohingya villages. The central government took positive steps by deploying security forces to suppress violence, granting the international community access to the conflict areas, forming an investigative commission into the causes of the violence, and engaging international experts on reconciliation. Intercommunal tensions remained high. At the end of the year, there were more than 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) resulting from the violence in Rakhine State.
The Burma Army escalated the use of force against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in December, including through the use of air power. In July the government stopped issuing travel permission for UN humanitarian aid convoys to travel to Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)-controlled areas, effectively cutting off an estimated 40,000 IDPs from access to international humanitarian assistance. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were generally able to access these populations during this period. KIA forces allegedly destroyed civilian infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and trains, and targeted attacks on police officials in Kachin State.
Significant human rights problems in the country persisted, including conflict-related abuses in ethnic minority border states; abuse of prisoners, continued detention of more than 200 political prisoners and restrictions on released political prisoners; and a general lack of rule of law resulting in corruption and the deprivation of land and livelihoods.
Government security forces were allegedly responsible for cases of extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture. The government abused some prisoners and detainees, held some persons in harsh and life-threatening conditions, and failed to protect civilians in conflict zones.
The government undertook some legal reforms during the year, and in practice restrictions on the exercise of a variety of human rights lessened markedly, if unevenly and unreliably, compared to past years. Nevertheless, a number of laws restricting freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement remained. The government allowed for greater expression by civil society, and NGOs were able to operate more openly than in previous years; however, the mandatory registration process for NGOs remained cumbersome and nontransparent.
The government signed an action plan with the UN to end illegal child soldiers. Though there were several well publicized demobilizations of child soldiers during the year, recruitment of child soldiers continued. Discrimination against ethnic minorities and stateless persons continued, as did trafficking in persons--particularly of women and girls--although the government took actions to combat this problem. Forced labor, including that of children, persisted.
The government generally did not take action to prosecute or punish those responsible for human rights abuses, with a few isolated exceptions. Abuses continued with impunity.
Ethnic armed groups also committed human rights abuses, including forced labor and recruitment of child soldiers, and failed to protect civilians in conflict zones.