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Burundi, wedged between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, rarely receives the attention it deserves. Like Rwanda, Burundi is still recovering from a history of massive ethnic violence in the 1990s. But unlike Rwanda, it has a strong civil society and independent media.
Burundi's progress is all the more notable because of the government's repeated attempts over the years to intimidate and silence journalists and human rights activists. In the last few weeks, however, the country has shown disturbing signs of increasing political tension that threaten to derail its faltering progress toward democracy, with elections planned for next year. Government officials, police, and the youth league of the ruling party have obstructed opposition party meetings and disrupted demonstrations and other activities.
In March, violent clashes between the police and members of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) led to numerous arrests and injuries. The government suspended the party for four months and charged 70 people – most of them MSD members -- in connection with their alleged role in the violence. Many were arbitrarily arrested and were not even informed of the precise accusations against them. After a summary trial that lasted just one day, and with no time to prepare their defence, 21 people were sentenced to life in prison, and 24 to various other prison terms.
Members of the youth league of the ruling CNDD-FDD party have carried out violent attacks and clashed with supporters of other parties on several occasions in 2013 and 2014. Some opposition party members have threatened to respond in kind.
In February, the government imposed pro-ruling-party leaders on another opposition party, the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), which has been part of the governing coalition. That led to the resignation of all three UPRONA ministers, and the party, which was already internally divided, effectively split in two. On 8 March, police used teargas to disrupt a peaceful Women's Day march organized by the women's league of UPRONA in the capital Bujumbura.
The ruling party has proposed amendments to the constitution that would allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term and undermine the power-sharing agreement between Hutu and Tutsi that was a central part of the peace process after more than a decade of civil war. These amendments were defeated by just one vote in Parliament in March.
This deteriorating political situation is taking place in the context of a series of restrictive laws in the last year, limiting freedom of association, assembly or expression. A new press law passed in June 2013 requires journalists to reveal their sources in some cases and limits the topics on which they can report. A law imposing restrictions on public gatherings, adopted in December, has made it more difficult for opposition parties and activists to operate. And another draft law could limit the work of nongovernmental groups.
The international community should take note of these worrying developments. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, we should not ignore the signs of political instability and repression across the border. Burundi cares about its international image and relies heavily on foreign donors, the EU in particular. While the EU, US, and UN have made welcome public statements, expressing concern about the latest developments, they should maintain pressure to prevent a further deterioration of the political environment and the prospect of violence in the lead-up to elections.
Recently, Burundians in the UK took to the streets to make their voices heard. They need the support of governments to encourage Burundian leaders to tolerate dissent, end abuses, and ensure that those who commit violent crimes are held accountable.
With the 2015 elections on the horizon, time may be running out. The sooner preventive action is taken, the more likely it is that a return to widespread violence will be avoided.
Lianna Merner is a senior associate in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. You can visit the HRW website to find out more about the group's activities in all spheres of human rights.