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Burma: Urgent reforms are the real litmus test of government’s commitment to change

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In the lead-up to the by-elections on 1 April, which are already marred by irregularities and censorship,[1] rights groups have stressed that key benchmarks have not yet been met. The international community must press for urgent steps to meet these benchmarks and to initiate substantive reforms without delay. These steps, more than the by-elections, are the real litmus test of whether the Burmese government genuinely intends to build a lasting peace and ensure the protection of all human rights, said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma), and Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB).

The four organizations released a briefing paper[2] today that was prepared for diplomats at the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council which concluded on 23 March. The paper identified four core issues that must be immediately addressed by the government:

  • Ongoing detention of political prisoners and harassment of activists
  • Ongoing attacks against civilians and serious crimes in ethnic areas
  • Repressive laws
  • Justice and accountability for past and present human rights abuses


The organizations said that failure to address these issues would seriously undermine efforts at national reconciliation and perpetuate long-running conflicts.

On 24 March, the government’s Election Commission decided to postpone voting in all three Kachin State constituencies in the upcoming by-elections, citing ‘security concerns’. The ongoing war in Kachin State was ignited when the Burma Army attacked the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in June 2011, breaking a 17-year ceasefire agreement. In the fraudulent elections of November 2010, the government also similarly cancelled voting in over 3,400 villages in Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon, and Shan States. “Ethnic nationalities have long demanded a just political solution to their grievances, and the latest voting postponement only serves to again disenfranchise ethnic voters and aggravate the root causes of armed conflict,” said Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

Political prisoners released on 13 January are subject to article 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code; some have reportedly been denied passports. They could still be forced to serve out their original sentences if deemed to have committed any other offence during their current period of “freedom”. Many of them have been harassed since their release. At least three former political prisoners were re-arrested, including the monk U Gambira and NLD member U Soe Kywe, who were later released but face potential new charges.

Numerous repressive laws that do not comply with international standards remain on the book, including the Electronics Act and the Unlawful Association Act, under which many political prisoners were convicted. The four organizations also raised serious concerns about the inconsistency with human rights standards in several new laws, including the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Bill, Farmland Bill, Ward or Village-tract Administration Bill.

“The international community must judge the government’s intention for real change not by the outcome of the elections but by concrete actions taken to ensure the freedom of political prisoners and bold institutional, legislative and policy reforms that can decisively create a truly democratic, inclusive and accountable government based on the rule of law and respect for all human rights,” said Soe Aung, Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

While the preparation for the elections is underway, the Burma Army’s offensive in Kachin State has intensified, with at least 20 clashes recorded since 1 February 2012 in Kachin State and Northern Shan State. The Human Rights Council’s latest resolution on Burma expresses “continued grave concerns” over violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and calls once again on the government to investigate these violations, bring perpetrators to justice and put an end to impunity. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, in his latest report to the Council, called on the government to ensure “independent, impartial and credible” investigations into human rights violations in the country. However, the organizations’ briefing paper said that Burma’s judiciary is in no position to provide justice to victims as it “is neither independent nor impartial”. The pro-government National Human Rights Commission has also publicly stated it would not investigate abuses in ethnic areas.

“Peace will remain elusive as long as attacks continue in ethnic areas and justice is denied to countless victims of armed conflicts. There is also an urgent need to ensure women’s participation and representation in the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements,” said Debbie Stothard, Coordinator of Altsean-Burma and Deputy Secretary-General of FIDH. “Justice and accountability are now the best guarantees of a successful national reconciliation,” she added.

Press contact:

FIDH : Arthur Manet/Karine Appy (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese) + 33 1 43 55 14 12 / + 33 1 43 55 25 18 (in Paris)

FORUM-ASIA : Yap Swee Seng (English) +66 81 868 9178

Altsean-Burma : Debbie Stothard (English) +66 81 686 1652

FDB : Soe Aung (Burmese, Thai, English) +66 81 839 9816


[1] See Altsean-Burma, “Burma’s by-elections: Still short of international standards”, March 2012. Available at: