Archive for the Human Rights Category

The Future is Murky in Burma, A Comment on Recent Changes — Part I

Posted in Burma News, Ethnic Issues, Human Rights on December 5, 2011 by burmaperspective

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:

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….


Enjoying small victories in Burma without reading tea leaves

Posted in Burma News, Human Rights on October 17, 2011 by burmaperspective

The recent decisions by the Burmese government to suspend development of the Myitsone dam [There is now some question as to whether work has completely stopped on the dam] and to release some political prisoners are the latest in a series of positive steps in the country.  Other such steps include meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and senior government officials, including President Thein Sein, and the unblocking of several websites, including VOA and DVB.  The press is seeing greater freedom and there is talk, from the government, of censorship-free days ahead.  On the economic front, workers now have the right to unionize and strike and there is word that banks will soon start being able to offer currency exchange. Maybe one day we’ll be able to actually use currency that is not practically perfect in every way.

In addition to these reported developments, I am told by people inside the country that there is an overall relaxation of restrictions on civil society organizations.  For example, local groups are no longer obligated to report the names of volunteers to the government.

I, for one, would like to just take a minute to enjoy some of the good news coming out of the country.  Yes, there are still political prisoners, and yes, ethnic armies are still under attack, but life for many Burmese is now a little better than before.  In fact, the pace of change is such that Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s deputy foreign minister said, “I almost left the country thinking they’re moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar.”

These kinds of sentiments are being echoed among many long time Burma-watchers.  And, honestly, right now, in this moment, I couldn’t care less whether the government is taking these actions in order to get support its bid for the ASEAN chairmanship or as a proactive measure to weaken the NLD.  I’m just going to be feel good about the fact that there are finally some things to feel good about.

Of course, for most, enjoying the new developments is not sufficient.  Advocacy groups and newspaper columnists feel the need to opine on “what it all means.”  Exile groups are quick to remind us about remaining political prisoners and human rights abuses and those with other agendas are ready to proclaim a new day in Burma.   I understand why groups try to add context to the news, but I think that trying to read the tea leaves is fruitless at best and misleading at worst.

The dynamic between and among various Burma-watching groups is fascinating complex and deserves its own post.  What is important to understand here is that each has its own agenda and it is impossible to tell how much of the analysis is either self-serving or colored by a natural organizational bias.  Each move by the regime can provide support for any and all positions.  Take the release of prisoners.  On one hand we read “Don’t be fooled by Burma’s meagre prisoner release” and, on the other, “This prisoner release is a genuine move and must elicit a positive response in kind by the West.”

The good news is that we have seen unprecedented newspaper coverage on Myanmar in recent weeks.  The bad news is that, for the most part, the coverage from those news outlets that do not usually cover Myanmar has merely echoed the rosy predictions from one side or the warnings from the other, without more independent analysis or recognition of the inherent biases of the observers these articles are quoting.

In my mind, any realistic analysis of recent developments looks something like this:

Some good things have happened in Burma recently.  A lot of very bad things are still happening.  We have no idea what will happen next.

Burma and Libya

Posted in Ethnic Issues, Human Rights on June 19, 2011 by burmaperspective

There has been some chatter among Burma watchers questioning why the international community so quickly intervened in Libya under the UN’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine. After reading a recent blog post on The Interpreter website, I was compelled to respond. I have reposted my letter to the author below:

Mr. Selth-

I very much enjoyed your piece. Like many Burma activists, I am often mystified by the US treatment of Burma as compared to other countries. I also agree that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has played a significant role in the way Burma is both perceived and treated by the international community. Once point worth considering is whether this is actually a good thing. Suu Kyi is undoubtedly an important symbol of freedom in Burma, but those that put her in the same category as, say, Mandela, are way off the mark.   There is no doubt that she bravely stepped into the spotlight in a leadership role when a leader was needed, but it was the chance illness of her mother that brought her to the country in the first place. There is some question about how much she has actually done to improve the lives of the people. Moreover, there are many in the ethnic communities, and even among Burmans, who believe she, and the NLD in general, is significantly out of touch with the desires and needs of ordinary Burmese.

More importantly, Burma is not Libya. In Burma, is there is a huge open question as to who the US or the UN should actually support in a military action. As you point out, there are few Burmese military personnel who have taken up arms against the government. The fighting, which has gone on since independence, has been conducted by ethnic armies. Put bluntly, the ethnic groups fighting against the Burmese military are not actually fighting for democracy. They are fighting for a variety of things, including cultural independence, autonomy, an end to forced relocation and land grabs, and, — lets be clear — money.  The Wa, which has the largest ethnic army, has been in the drug business for a very long time. If the US were to intercede militarily, would we support the Wa? Fight them? Other groups, including the KNU, who are often seen as the “white knights” in the fights against the Burmese (largely due to their Christian majority — a whole other set of issues), are also feared by many citizens who have been paying taxes to them and been conscripted by them for many years. Burma looks a lot more like Iraq than it does Libya. Overthrowing the government will just be the first step in a process of nation-building that will take years. Even within the various ethnic groups, unity has been impossible. (e.g., the SSA North and South, the KNLA/DKBA). Plus, there is a huge industry of exile groups still refusing to accept that their sacrifices in 1988 were largely for nothing who will continue to demand a seat at the table.

I abhor the actions of the military junta and their cronies, but I get concerned when I see so much media attention put on the lack of democracy, and so little on the assortment of other issues facing the nation. I have focused my work on development, rather than politics, largely because I have not been able get my mind around a solution. What I know for sure is that foreign military intervention is not it.

Wikileaks Rangoon Cables Part I – Retribution vs. Development

Posted in Development, Human Rights, Sanctions on December 24, 2010 by burmaperspective

A few cables relating to Burma have been released in the newest batch of Wikileaks*   One, in particular, was particularly interesting.  It was written in 2008 by Shari Villarosa, the outgoing chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Rangoon and is a summary of her thoughts on a range of issues.  I am going to address several of the points she raises in the next few posts.

In the cable, Ms. Villarosa suggests that the United States may want to provide security guarantees to senior ruling generals in return for them stepping down.  This concept dovetails with some of my argument regarding a Commission of Inquiry in this post.  A blanket security guarantee would go further, eliminating, rather than delaying the possibility of retribution for the large numbers of people who have been unjustly imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or killed by the regime. The notion of what to do with leaders who have committed gross human rights abuses has been widely debated and discussed by scholars and human rights practitioners.  The International Center for Transitional Justice (which disagrees with my position on a Commission of Inquiry) is one organization that exists solely to deal with this problem.  An interesting discussion on the issue can be found here.   In my mind, the ultimate question of whether retribution should be traded off in order to accomplish goals of democracy and development should be left to the Burmese people.  Of course, how we determine the views of the “Burmese people” is a more difficult question that I will deal with in a later post. Continue reading

Now is not the time for a Commission of Inquiry

Posted in Human Rights on November 30, 2010 by burmaperspective

There is no question that gross human rights violations have been committed by the ruling regime in Burma.  The question is what is the best way for the international community to react to these atrocities.  Many have supported a UN-led Commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.  In August, President Obama joined several other countries in giving his support to such an inquiry.

While I believe that those who have committed atrocities should be help accountable for their actions, I do not believe that this is the right time to raise the issue at the UN.

First, any attempt at international action without China’s blessing would be fruitless.  Given China’s economic interest in stability in Burma together with their protectiveness of any activity within their sphere of influence, at the present time, there is no hope of getting China on board.  North Korea clearly represents a much more direct threat to international security and China has steadfastly refused to take any dramatic steps to rein in Pyongyang.  With recent escalations in tensions between North and South Korea, China will be particularly sensitive to any international policing going on so close to its borders.  Rather than spend time and energy on futile efforts, advocacy groups should be focusing on more achievable goals. Continue reading