Looking Beyond Burma’s Smokescreen


November 30, 2011 10:30 EDT

Context and analysis on Burma’s supposedly democratic government, and its record of human rights violations.

Since Burma’s military regime put on the veneer of civilian government earlier this year, President Thein Sein has shown an interest in engagement with the United States. In an effort to exhibit his interest in a better relationship with the United States, President Thein Sein agreed to a key issue for the United States by meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once, releasing a small number of political prisoners and amending the political party registration law to allow former political prisoners to be part of a political party and participate in elections. The US has responded by sending several key officials, and now on December 1st Secretary Clinton will be the first Secretary of State to first Burma in fifty years. She will only be going to Rangoon and Naypyidaw, and in order to make sure this trip is a success and not just more talk, she has to look beyond these cities and push for real change in all of Burma.

This year has been business as usual for Burma’s military as they work to subjugate Burma’s ethnic populations. In the past year, there has been a serious uptick in human rights violations committed by the Burmese army, including the largest forced displacement in a decade, renewed armed conflict with three separate decades old ethnic ceasefire groups, an increase in the use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labor and the use of human shields.

While some in the international community want to look at Burma through a narrow lens and preach only of the benefits of the regime’s efforts, the reality is that for most of the people of Burma, life has not changed. Burma is being praised for easing media restrictions and allowing people to access foreign internet sites like BBC. This is good for the 110,000 people in Burma who use the internet, but the 170,000 people who have been displaced this past year are not witnessing a country of progress. Instead, they join the half million people who are chronically displaced in one of Asia’s worst humanitarian situations.

What the US, as well as other countries, have to maintain is a cohesive understanding of Burma today, one that can see behind the regime’s cosmetic changes, and see the reality of conflict and human rights abuses that Burma’s leaders want to keep hidden.

Burma’s current system is not that different from its previous representation. The main political party that won the election- the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was directly formed from the regime’s paramilitary social organization the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). They won 76% of the available seats, and now the military and the USDP control all major leadership positions in the national government as well as regional assemblies. It is no wonder that the few independent parliamentarians have been sidelined and silenced. Representatives of Burma’s ethnic groups have been incapable of keeping the military from committing ongoing atrocities against civilians and breaking old ceasefires, thus creating new conflict zones. While some political leaders have been pinpointed as “reformers” who could be important to support, it is also valuable to keep in mind the political structures put in place with the new Constitution. Even if President Thein Sein wants to bring reforms, there are still questions of how much power he actually has in comparison with hard-line generals. Moreover, as much as I would like to believe Thein Sein has changed his ways, we have to keep in mind he was the regional commander during the forced displacement of over 200,000 civilians in Shan state between 1996-2001. This period was one of the most brutal times in Burma’s recent history.

Burma’s military is not subject to control by the parliament and their powers are broad and vague in the Constitution, leaving room for military hardliners to apply as they so choose. Burma’s new only presents a façade of civilian control and the question of who really has control in Burma is still yet to be determined. What we do know is that there has not been a time since the new government went into power when there hasn’t been active conflict and perpetration of human rights abuses.

The vast majority of Burma’s ethnic civil society and armed groups stood defiant against the regime’s new constitution, which denied them basic rights and representation in the government. Ethnic groups do not want to separate. What they want is a federal union, and have already worked with democratic groups to draft a federal constitution. The current regime leaders have demonstrated how their main interest is not in building peaceful reconciliation in the country, but in subjugating ethnic groups in order to control their valuable natural resources. In the Kachin area of Northern Burma, conflict erupted in June of this year that has caused tens of thousands of people to flee. Many refugees when interviewed speak of their worries of human rights abuses such as forced labor and sexual violence. Kachin organizations have documented numerous cases of Burmese troops using rape as a weapon of war against civilians. These abuses do not appear to be stopping, and Burma’s leadership does not seem to be interested in genuine peace negotiations.

In Northern Shan State, new conflict also erupted in March of this year. As of August of this year, Shan civil society groups reported that at least 30,000 people have been displaced and are facing a humanitarian crisis. Moreover, they have also reported egregious human rights abuses, including the Burma army using monks as human shields. All this new conflict in Northern Burma is on top of existing conflicts that have been ongoing in eastern Burma for decades. Last year, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar [Burma], declared to the UN that “Given the gross and systematic nature of human rights violations in Myanmar over a period of many years, and the lack of accountability, there is an indication that those human rights violations are the result of a state policy that involves authorities in the executive, military, and judiciary at all levels.” Nevertheless, despite that all reports show abuses have not stopped, many international leaders are keen to brush aside reports of crimes against humanity and instead adopt a “wait and see” policy.

Burma’s current leaders, under the façade of a new democracy, are trying to win over the international community with their cosmetic changes. President Thein Sein says exiled activists can return back to the country, all while keeping almost 1,800 political prisoners still locked up. While officials make speeches about helping the economy and alleviating poverty they sell off Burma’s natural resources to other countries. Dams and pipelines will ship energy to China and other countries, while local populations face displacement, abuses, and still no electricity. Burma announced the formation of a Human Rights Commission and then filled it with leaders who have a marked history of being the regime’s public faces of human rights abuse denial. The US Government is right to keep sanctions in place until the regime’s actions match their words.

The benchmarks that have been laid out by the international community time and time again (as noted in multiple UN General Assembly and resolutions and the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolutions) have yet to be met. The absolute minimal measures needed to ensure that Burma is truly on the steps towards reconciliation and progress continue to be elusive. Other than the release of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November, many of Burma’s bright democratic leaders remain behind bars. Burma’s political prisoners are more than just political activists, but also monks, students, mothers, social workers, journalists, and more. By releasing more political prisoners and halting the end of arbitrary arrests, the Burma’s leadership can send a signal that they mean to cease the culture of fear that penetrates the country.

Another urgent benchmark is an inclusive national dialogue, where all groups, including democratic forces, political parties, ethnic representatives, and the military can come together to construct a genuine path towards national reconciliation. This is not an insurmountable task. Almost all ethnic armed groups and leaders have expressed their desire to work with Aung San Suu Kyi to create a national dialogue. However, the regime is currently only willing to negotiate with individual people and groups. They will negotiate with Aung San Suu Kyi as well as the powerful United Wa State Army, but the other ethnic groups and leaders they are not keen to have dialogue with. This is so that they can control the situation and maintain absolute power.

What is needed is for the international community to look at the full picture of Burma and coordinate to demand real change. The appointment of Derek Mitchell as US Special Representative and Policy Coordinator is encouraging because of its focus on creating greater international cohesion and tightening existing US efforts. The US Special Representative and Policy Coordinator is tasked to promote a comprehensive international effort, including multilateral sanctions, direct dialogue with Burma’s regime and democracy forces, consult with the European Union, ASEAN, Burma’s neighboring countries and regional powers, and coordinate sanctions within the US Government and other relevant international financial institutions.

Ambassador Mitchell already visited Burma where he visited Rangoon and the general’s jungle fortress city Naypyitaw. What is crucial is for Ambassador Mitchell’s vision to see beyond the cities and to the parts of Burma where international attention isn’t allowed.

Furthermore, even though it is positive news that Ambassador Mitchell has been confirmed, it is not an excuse for President Obama to not show strong global leadership in pushing for an end to crimes against humanity in Burma. A year ago President Obama voiced support for a UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma, but has yet to take any action. A UN Commission of Inquiry is a crucial first step in bringing justice and reconciliation to Burma. Members of the US Congress have repeatedly shown strong support for ensuring genuine democratic change in Burma, and yet President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have shown reluctance in transforming their words of support into action.

Burma's release last week of over 200 political prisoners follows their usual strategy of releasing a small percentage of those locked up in order to relieve international pressure. It is a tactic that has been employed regularly over the years. When former dictator Than Shwe came to power in 1992, some saw him as a reforming President when he released 427 political prisoners. However, he went on to rule Burma with an iron fist. What is needed is the release of all political prisoners in order to show that Burma is truly on the path to change. There are 1,700 political prisoners still behind bars and every single one of them has to be unconditionally released.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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