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Balancing Celebration and Caution in Burma

11 Apr

Photographer: Christopher Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Newspapers have been heralding the election last week of Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese Parliament. Pictures of the victorious Suu Kyi speaking to thousands to cheering supporters and headlines pronouncing the “…dawn of a new era” in Burma covered the front pages. The announcement of the election of the Nobel Laureate, opposition leader and former political prisoner, who spent nearly two decades under house arrest, was no doubt an important and symbolic step towards a hopeful democratic transition in the small South East Asian nation. But while the world is congratulating one of it’s most celebrated women on her electoral victory, thousands of other Burmese women are continuing to suffer at the hands of the brutal military that still holds the majority of power in the country.

Mass atrocities have been common place in the minority states of Eastern Burma since the military regime took control of the government decades ago and decided to use scorched earth tactics to put down rebellions in outlying states like Kachin.  In addition to pillaging and razing homes and villages and forcing their populations to relocate, the military has faced accusations of unlawful killings, torture, forced labor, the use of child soldiers  and the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas.

There have also been widespread reports of rape and other forms of sexual violence and slavery being used as weapons of war against ethnically Chin, Karen and Rohingya women. From March to November 2011, more than 81 rapes were reported to human rights activists along the Thai-Burma border and as refugees poured into China from the minority state of Kachin, so did the horrific tales of rape. Human Rights Watch released a report last month on various human rights abuses taking place in Kachin, which included detailed descriptions by witness of the atrocities being committed against women in this state. These reports include the gang-rape of a young woman by 4 soldiers, and the abduction of two women who were taken to a military encampment where they were  forced from tent to tent and repeatedly raped by officers. These events occurred just months before the countries landmark elections.

These continued abuses exemplify the need to balance the celebration and hope surrounding the election of Aung San Suu Kyi with caution. While these glimpses of democracy are welcome, under the countries constitution it is the military that still holds the power, with little to no accountability to the civilian government that Suu Kyi and her colleagues in the National League for Democracy were elected into. Due to this, it is yet to be seen how much real change everyday Burmese citizens and particularly those from ethnic minority groups, will see as a result of these elections.

In the excitement that has followed the elections, nations throughout the world have begun to “mull over” their options for lifting diplomatic and financial sanctions against Burma. South-East Asian heads of state who met at last weeks ASEAN Summit ( Association of Southeast Asian Nations) called for western states to immediately lift all sanctions, which would be music to the ears of many investors.

Several major European corporations have been pushing the EU to lift their sanctions quickly, as they are eager to move in ahead of American rival companies. While it is likely that the EU will ease restrictions it has not yet stated what that will entail. David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, is expected to visit Burma this week, making him the highest ranking western leader to visit the country (the US began to thaw diplomatic relations last December when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited).

The United States has also begun to ease travel bans on Burmese leaders and restrictions on financial services and investments. Clinton also announced the Obama Administrations plans to appoint an ambassador and organize a USAID program for the country. The rewards that Clinton announced were tempered with her accompanying firm calls for improvements in human rights and continued political reform.

Human rights advocates have argued that the much of the progress that has been made can be attributed to international pressure put on Burma, and warn that the lifting of sanctions too quickly takes away a major leverage point that could be used to urge further reform.

Western states need to acknowledge and reward what progress has been made in Burma, but the level of those rewards must be on par with the level of real progress and change that has been seen. All sanctions can not just be lifted when civilians are still being targeted and killed, children are being recruited as soldiers and porters and women face a continuous threat of sexual assault.

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I also wanted to share 2 great opinion pieces by Burmese refugees (and activist leaders) in North America:

Still Waiting for Reform in Burma – By Yee Htun, Coordinator for the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.

Burma – What Elections Mean to the Ethnic People – By Myra Dahgaypaw, Board Member of Karen American Communities Foundation and is a 2010 Carl Wilkens Fellow with Genocide Intervention Network (now United to End Genocide).