Seeds of Conflict Remain in Burma

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“Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” -Aung San Suu Kyi

The world is watching as Burma slowly reforms what has been, for the past 20 years, a corrupt military regime. Since rising to the presidency, President Thein Sein has overseen a wave of political reforms unprecedented in Burma’s recent history, freeing political prisoners and taking steps towards a freer press and more open electoral competition.

Many, including the US government, are optimistic about the direction in which Burma is heading. On Wednesday, President Obama agreed to ease certain sanctions against the Burmese government as “a strong signal of our support for reform, [which] will provide immediate incentives for reformers and significant benefits to the people of Burma.” The President’s decision will allow U.S. companies to begin investing in Burma, reversing an investment ban has been in place since 1997.

This move by the Obama administration has long been expected, and there is no question that Burma’s reform efforts are encouraging. However, optimism must be tempered with realism. The fact is that serious human rights concerns persist in Burma. Indeed, in April, a number of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, United to End Genocide, and the U.S. Campaign for Burma, sent a letter of concern to the administration, urging the U.S. to “retain its leverage until real reform occurs” and to “work with civil society and ethnic nationality leaders in Burma to develop binding standards for US companies doing business in Burma.” Notably, hundreds of political prisoners remain to be released, and there are continued reports of ethnic cleansing of two peoples within Burma: the stateless Rohingyas and the Burmese Kachin.

The Muslim Rohingyas have long been subject to violence and oppression. Henry Zheng at PolicyMic notes, “Even though they have lived in Myanmar [Burma] for nearly a century and number more than 800,000 in the Myanmar state of Rakhine, they are still a stateless people who are not recognized by the Myanmar government. In 1982, the Myanmar government instituted a law that has made it nearly impossible for the Rohingya to obtain citizenship.” He goes on to illustrate this point with quotes by Burmese officials and news sources, calling the Rohingya “as ugly as ogres” and referring to Muslims as “kalar,” a racial slur. A recent wave of mob violence against the Rohingya population of Arakan State led to dozens of deaths, and was followed by mass arrests and home burnings conducted by government forces. Thein Sein recently proposed that the Rohingya be removed from Burma and resettled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), although the U.N. flatly rejected this proposal.

Unlike the Rohingya, the Kachin are not Muslim, and are considered Burmese nationals. Yet they are being targeted by the Burmese government. Rice crops have been burned, forcing a slow death upon civilians, who bear the brunt of the army’s offensive against the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The KIO has been at odds with the government since the 1960s, and holds control over much of Kachin State, maintaining their own police and fire departments, educational system, and immigration department on the China border. Since June, when the 1994 ceasefire between the KIO and the Burmese army ended, thousands of civilians have been displaced in KIO-controlled areas. The Burmese government “recently refused an offer from the UN to assist refugees trapped on the Kachin side of China’s border with Burma,” and the lack of a UN presence has deterred other aid organizations from offering such assistance. Consequently, approximately 30,000 Kachin refugees face an “increasingly dire situation.”

These low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns are nothing new for the Burmese military government. For years it has focused on stifling dissenting voices while neglecting to build sustainable state structures. For years, Burmese citizens have created their own institutions due to the state’s lack of capacity--or interest--in doing so itself. The sad truth is that the Burmese government can make as many statements as it wishes, but at the moment it does not have the authority, ability, or probably even the motivation, to enforce its own words.

With all of this in mind, the Obama administration should approach the removal of investment sanctions with a firm understanding of the human-rights consequences of hasty action. As Aung San Suu Kyi has observed, and U.S. policymakers have confirmed, the Burmese military maintains control over a significant portion of the national economy. While encouraging further reforms, U.S. policymakers, private companies, and diplomats should work with credible members of the Burmese government and civil society groups to ensure that foreign direct investment does not harm civilians nor further entrench the military's authority over Burmese politics, economic development, and security.

In addition, while the targeted removal of sanctions can serve as a helpful incentive for further reform, it is important that the U.S. government maintain pressure on the Burmese government. Consequently, it would be inadvisable to remove too many sanctions at once. The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which bans U.S. imports of Burmese goods, is currently up for renewal. These import sanctions should not be permitted to expire until the Burmese state shows a clear commitment to ending continued human rights violations and the ongoing targeting of civilians.

Please call 1-800-GENOCIDE and follow the instructions to be connected to your representative and senators. Urge them to vote “Yes” on the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act (House Bill 5986/Senate Joint Resolution 43).

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