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Top UN diplomat threatened with expulsion following release of mildly critical statement

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a 2 November 2007 Human Rights Watch press release:

Burma: Threat to Expel Top UN Diplomat
UN Envoy, China, Should Push for Real Reform

(New York, November 2, 2007) - Burma's threat to expel Charles Petrie, the top United Nations official in the country, shows the military government's intolerance for even the mildest criticism, Human Rights Watch said today.

The threatened expulsion comes on the eve of the arrival of UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, and risks overshadowing Gambari's efforts to press the government to engage in a substantive political dialogue with the opposition.

"Burma's generals will do anything to avoid being pressured into talks about genuine reform," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But now the danger is that Gambari will spend his time talking about the UN's role in Burma instead of the need to end the crackdown and bring real reform. Gambari should stick to his agenda instead of falling for such cheap ploys."

The threatened expulsion of Petrie follows the release of a UN country team statement on October 24, 2007 to mark United Nations Day. In the statement, the UN team referred to the recent peaceful protests in Burma, stating that "the concerns of the people have been clearly expressed through the recent peaceful demonstrations, and it is beholden on all to listen" ( http://yangon.unic.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=97&Itemid=73 ).

The UN statement did not even mention, let alone criticize, the violent crackdown on the protests. It appealed to the government to increase its public expenditures in social sectors and for a significant scaling up of international assistance to Burma's poor. The statement rightly noted that the dire state of the economy is a direct result of government policies.

In response, the next day, Burma's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a "protest note," criticizing the statement as "unprecedented" and "very negative" ( http://mission.itu.ch/MISSIONS/Myanmar/pressrelease_PMGev/Press%20Release%20No.5_31%20Oct%2007.pdf ). It said the statement "has jeopardized the good working relations existing between the Ministry and the Country Team," because "[t]he statement harms Myanmar's image despite its all-out cooperation with the UN, and gives the wrong message to the international community."

"That the Burmese government thinks that a mild criticism could hurt the country's image shows just how out of touch with reality it is," said Adams. "Sadly, Burma is now synonymous with human rights abuses and repression."

On November 2, Petrie was summoned to the remote administrative capital Naypyidaw, where government officials criticized his issuing of the statement. At the end of the meeting, he was handed a letter accusing him of "acting beyond his capacity in issuing the statement," and informing him that the authorities no longer wanted him to serve in the country. He was told his accreditation, which was about to expire, would not be renewed.

"If the junta treats high-ranking foreign officials this way, what kind of treatment can ordinary citizens expect?" said Adams.

Others besides Petrie have criticized Burma in recent weeks. This criticism has so far included a UN Security Council statement and the "revulsion" expressed by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Human Rights Watch said, however, that this latest government response underlines the need to increase the pressure so that the generals understand they cannot continue with "business as usual." The international community should insist on real reform and an end to abuses. China will have a particularly key role to play at the Security Council and elsewhere in the weeks to come in ensuring a unified international front on Burma. As one of Burma's closest allies, a principled stance by China in support of reform in Burma would have a major impact. A more principled approach by India will also be crucial, as will strong pressure at the next ASEAN summit later this month.

"Through the Security Council, China has joined international criticism of the recent crackdown and has dispatched Gambari to try to find a political solution," said Adams. "By targeting Petrie, Burma is rebuking China as much as the United Nations. China should make it clear that it will support the UN and not the generals."

For more of Human Rights Watch's recent work on Burma, please visit: http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=asia&c=burma

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