Updated 16 November 2012, 21:45 AEST
On the eve of US President Barack Obama's much-awaited Southeast Asia tour, advocacy groups are urging him to get tough on repressive governments.
US has given too much leverage to Burma - rights group (Credit: ABC)
Mr Obama begins his trip in Bangkok tomorrow and he'll go on to meet with Asia's top leaders at a summit in Cambodia next week.
The US leader will also hold talks with Burma's President Thein Sein.
And while Burma has made tentative steps towards democracy, human rights groups say it has been rewarded much too soon.
They say the US now lacks leverage to get Burma to introduce more reforms.
Burma last night released over 450 prisoners, but rights groups called it a cynical move, ahead of the US leader's visit.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Mark Farmaner, Director at Burma Campaign UK
FARMANER: From the information we've received so far, it seems that there're no political prisoners included in this release. It's abit of a mystery why they'd do that, to build up expectations, to knock it down. We're starting to see this pattern, where before every significant international events, whether it's Obama visiting now, or before the UN General Assembly, when Thein Sein visited New York, you get a small number of political prisoners being released. So, Thein Sein seems to have decided after releasing several hundred political prisoners a few months ago, to keep a few hundred in prison and use them as some kind of political pawns, to be able to get some political capital every now and then, when he's got an important international event.
LAM: So are you saying that the Burmese government is being cynical, and indeed, manipulative in these staggered prisoner releases?
FARMANER: It's a very cynical way in which the Burmese government has made these political releases. They're saying they're committed to reform and democracy, and yet they've decided to keep hundres of political prisoners in jail. They're getting credit from the international community everytime they make these releases. Most international leaders now barely mention political prisoners, so it seems that it's been quite a successful strategy for the government of Burma. They'd release a few hundred political prisoners, left many more behind in jail and then release them tactically, when they need abit of good publicity.
LAM: So do we know who this latest batch of 450 prisoners are? If they're not prisoners of conscience, what does your information tell you?
FARMANER: We haven't received any reliable information yet on who these prisoners are, I'm afraidd. Our contacts focussed on those in jail for political reasons. One thing we are concerned about is, while you may have 700 or 800 political prisoners who'd been released in the past year and a half, there seems to be alot of arrests taking place in some of the ethnic states. So, where the Burmese army has resumed conflict in the northern Kachin state, you have many innocent Kachin farmers who were being arrested, jailed and tortured and accused of the being part of the Kachin Independence Army, who're fighting the Burmese Army.
And you also have in Rakhine state, where you've had the communal violence and now systematic attacks against the Rohingya muslim minority. The government itself has admitted that there're around a thousand people it's arrested and the majority of them are Rohingyas. Many of them were probably involved in the violence, but we've also had reports that many political and community leaders Rohingya political leaders were arrested as well, perhaps to stop them from talking to the international community about what's taking place. And we have no way of assessing the proper number of political prisoners in the country. We can't trust the government - they've made no serious measures to deal with this problem. We have this 'drip drip' series of tactical political prisoner releases. We have consistent reports of more people being arrested, more people being jailed and I think it's time the international community moved on from this current process. And we've said to the government of Burma, we need now to establish a proper Commission in Burma, which has international support, with UN exertise, which can properly assess how many political prisoners are in Burma's jails and ensure that they are released. So that we deal with this issue once and for all, because we can't continue with this years-long process of political prisoners being kept in jail, relased at a time when the government needs good publicity, more people still being arrested and jailed - especially at a time when the international community seems much more concerned about trade now, than human rights in Burma. A Commission like this, which is going to be keeping a focus on political prisoners, making sure that they are released - it's very important.
LAM: And so when the US President Barack Obama meets with his Burmese counterpart Thein Sein on Monday, do you expect that he might raise these issues of human rights and indeed, that of the sectarian violence and the ethnic minority issues in Burma?
FARMANER: We certainly expect President Obama to raise all of the key, important human rights issue with President Thein Sein. The problem we have now, is what leverage has the US got left, to persuade Thein Sein to go further? People in Burma tell us that most of these reforms are 'top-down', all decided by the President, not part of a negotiated process and they're skin-deep.
You've had some political prisoner releases but not all released. And all the laws that put them in jail are still in the books. That Thein Sein has not introduced one democratic reform that actually makes Burma closer to being a proper democracy. There're no laws being passed that reduce the power of the military or the government. The problem that Obama is going to have is that he can raise all the issues about human rights and the political prisoner situation, and Rakhine and Kachin states, but what leverage does he have, when he has already lifted most of the sanctions against Burma? When he's now visiting Burma, which is an enormous reward for President Thein Sein. He's thrown away the sticks, now he's given away almost all the carrots, so what leverage has he got left, to actually make sure that Thein Sein really delivers on releasing all the political prisoners, ending the violence against ethnic minorities and introducing real democratic reforms?