Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Burma Rising?

Since 1962, the large Asian nation alternately known as Burma and Myanmar for complex political reasons has lived under a brutal military junta responsible for ethnic cleansing/genocide, the use of child soldiers in ongoing civil conflicts, mass rape, child and slave labor, human trafficking, and a complete lack of the freedom of speech. Since 2011 when the ruling military began easing its grip on economic and political life, the country has quickly improved its relations with longtime foes in the West, especially in the realm of trade. Many have hailed the apparent Burmese turn-around, especially when pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and hundreds of political prisoners were granted amnesty. In December 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the first Secretary to visit Burma in more than half of a century, followed by Pres. Barack Obama this month, the first president to visit Burma since its independence.

A Kachin Independence Army soldier (the military of one of the provinces fighting the government) patrols the jungle.

These marks of progress should not be belittled at the same time as they should not be hailed as complete victories for human rights. Within the so-called “Tourism Triangle” that contains Burma’s ruling ethnic groups and cities, life certainly appears a bit rosier. Former political prisoners have been allowed to return home from prison and exile abroad; people speak openly if cautiously about their government; elections were held in 2010, and while their fairness is questionable their existence is laudable; Pres. Thein Sein has made statements committing to reining in the military and fostering democracy.

Yet for all of this progress, outside of the “Tourism Triangle,” at least 11 ethnic military groups are battling the military for autonomy or independence. The human rights violations occurring in these areas are matters of speculation since foreigners are not allowed outside the Triangle. Reports of rape, extrajudicial executions, torture, the use of child soldiers, and the reliance on forced labor to supply the military are a common thread.

Pres. Obama has expressed “deep concern” to the new leader about the ongoing violence, but in reality Pres. Sein has few options. A member of the former military junta himself and a high-ranking general, he is unlikely to introduce any form of system to bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice. The military also remains outside of his control under the Constitution, and he has a limited ability to control the decisions of officers.

As massacres and human rights abuses continue to occur throughout Burma, even longtime political hero Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire from her former supporters. Her close relationship to the military establishment and unwillingness to speak up against human rights abuses of ethnic minorities has confused, hurt, and enraged those that stood by her during her imprisonment.

Democracy is a messy process that takes decades to take root, and even when it does it is naturally imperfect. It has only been two years since the “Opening” of Burma, and already the improvements have been significant. With greater economic development and opportunities for all of Burma’s people, it could be that democracy will continue its slow march, human rights abuses will decline, and the military’s influence will wane. To a person from an ethnic minority in Burma, however, these words are small comfort in the face of slaughter.

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