We have been shown tremendous kindness and hospitality by the Burundian people in our time here. We were grateful to have a chance to meet with President Nkurunziza, representatives of the major political parties, young leaders at the university, and advocates for civil society.
I came to the region for the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, which began twenty years ago this week. It is a reminder to us all of the horrific violence that can result from ethnic antagonism and a reminder of the need for constant vigilance to ensure that leaders act in time to prevent the kind of political unraveling that could lead to conflict and to mass atrocities.
Here in Burundi, wise leaders have moved boldly and effectively over the past decade to reduce the potential for inter-ethnic violence. Stability has been restored, democratic institutions have been grown, and Burundi’s professional armed forces are making an important contribution to peacekeeping operations in such places as Somalia and the Central African Republic. Burundi has offered the world a powerful model of how ethnic groups can join together – even after mass violence – in peaceful co-existence.
However, my government was very disturbed by the events of March 8, when fighting broke out in connection with two separate events sponsored by opposition political parties. These events seem reflective of a broader erosion, shrinking of political space for opposition and independent voices in Burundi – including new and restrictive media and assembly laws. An environment of free and open dialogue is essential, especially as the government considers changes to Burundi’s post-war constitution. Efforts to undermine the Arusha consensus on power-sharing and political inclusion will put a hard-won peace at risk.
As preparations continue for elections in May of next year, the United States is hopeful that a climate of internal stability, freedom, and peace will prevail. To that end, the United States will provide $7.5 million in assistance for the Burundian electoral process, and I'm pleased to announce that today.
As Burundi approaches this critical election, we call on the government to respect fully the constitutional rights of its citizens, including that of opposition parties to express themselves freely and to hold peaceful gatherings. We also urge the government and the opposition to reject violence and to engage in the political process in a civil and non-confrontational manner. Burundi’s continued stability depends on maintaining a political climate in which all people can freely express their views, organize on behalf of their interests, and have a say in how they are governed.
The United States is deeply aware of the importance here in Burundi of civil society and of such democratic institutions as a free press and access to justice. In our own country and on every continent, we have seen citizens’ groups take the lead in trying to improve governance, promote fairness for women and minorities, protect the rights of children, and seek equitable treatment for all people under the law. Journalists and advocacy groups have a vital role to play in exposing problems, increasing accountability, and developing ideas for reform.
I would like thank all of you for coming and would like to open it up now for questions. We think Burundi is a model to much of the world for how far it has come, we think it can have a much brighter future even ahead, but again we are here in part to express concern that the shrinkage in political space risks some of the hard won progress this beautiful country has achieved.
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