Not so long ago, I wrote this post, imploring people not to try to read the tea leaves regarding change in Burma. I was really enjoying the first positive news coming out of the country in a long time and I just wanted some time to let it all soak in before trying to predict the future. But now, events are moving way too quickly not to comment. I’d like to share my thoughts on where we are now and what the international community can and should be doing.
Before we even begin, let’s keep in mind that just a year ago, this government completely rigged an election to maintain power and before that, “reformer” Thein Sein was a general in a military junta, and described as having “absolute loyalty to military supremo Senior General Than Shwe.” This very recent backdrop should be kept in mind as we evaluate the current reforms.
Recent Changes – Good News, But….
Let’s first be clear about what the recent changes are and what they are not. What they are is positive step in the right direction. What they are not is any kind of wholesale change. And for every change in the right direction, there is a big BUT that follows. Some examples:
- The government released 200 political prisoners BUT there are still many left, and the government does not acknowledge that any prisoners of conscience exist.
- The government passed a law permitting peaceful assembly BUT these assemblies are subject to some pretty severe restrictions and activists are still being arrested.
- The government stopped development of the Myitsone dam BUT work continues on other dams as well as pipeline projects that are both environmentally damaging and involve forced relocation and other human rights abuses. Moreover, a strong argument can be made that stopping the dam project was more about Myanmar flexing some muscle toward China as opposed to bowing to populist will.
- Media freedom has clearly improved BUT DVB journalists remain jailed and the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, while less heavy-handed, continues to exercise censorship and hand down punishment for politically sensitive reporting.
- The regime has reached peace agreements with several ethnic armies, BUT war continues with great intensity with the KIO. Plus, there is some question as to whether individual agreements are truly a step towards lasting peace or more divide-and-conquer strategy from the regime.
- The NLD has been able to register as a political party, and there is a good chance that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be an MP, BUT allowing The Lady into the government may well be a shrewd maneuver to keep her from causing trouble outside. There is a real question, for example, about how far out on the limb the NLD and Suu Kyi are willing to go on behalf of ethnic minorities.
In spite of ceasefires, fundamental issues remain with regard to Burma’s ethnic minorities
First of all, as discussed above, the Kachin are still very much at war with the regime. Moreover, we have seen ceasefires before. Unless this go-around is accompanied by a fundamental policy shift granting some autonomy and respect for ethnic rights, the ceasefires won’t hold. Many ethnic leaders are still in prison. In spite of reforms, I do not see ethnic armies turning over their weapons any time soon. Until that happens, civil war will always be a risk.
Second, while most ethnic leaders are truly fighting for the best interests of their people, some use their armies, not just to fight for equal treatment, but also to protect significant sources of income. The Wa, for example, are among the largest producers of meth in the world, having graduated from heroin. Other leaders have set up quite nice lives for themselves by heavily taxing their people. There will be significant unwinding to be done.
Third, there are currently about 150,000 refugees living in camps in Thailand. Plus, there are more in India and Malaysia. How are these people going to be repatriated? And, is their security going to be guaranteed? Plus, the unconscionable treatment of the Rohingyas cannot be ignored.
Economic Oppression is Alive and Well
With all the recent focus on political reforms, it can be easy to forget that for most Burmese, the oppression that impacts their lives most directly is economic oppression. That economic oppression started with Ne Win’s disastrous socialist experiment and continued with the military junta’s rampant exploitation of the country’s natural resources for personal gain. While the majority of Burmese have lived in poverty, the generals and their cronies have amassed considerable wealth. The recent changes directly impact only a small percentage of Burmese. For the rest, reform has brought little relief.
The question is, What can be done about it? Last year, in anticipation of “reform,” the Burmese government privatized large segments of its industry. Of course, most buyers were the very tycoons with close ties to the regime and with places on U.S. sanctions lists. We know that the U.S. certainly is not going to back any kind of redistribution of private assets, so there is an open question regarding how political reforms are going to trickle down to Burma’s large poverty stricken population.
With economic oppression comes human rights violations
While ethnic warfare and political retribution has led to significant human rights violations, some of the brutal treatment of Burmese people, including forced relocation and loss of livelihood, has been a result of plain old fashioned greed. Abuses in the name of profit are nothing new and certainly not limited to Burma.
The recent changes are not going to fix this, especially since the lack of any real democracy deprives locals of the most powerful tool against those who take advantage of them – voting out the government that lets it happen. Just this week, an activist who was trying to organize farmers to protect their land was put on trial.
In the next post, what the international community can and should do to help….