Modest Moves Toward Democracy in Burma Are Not Enough

In the last two weeks the international press has applauded the Burmese government as it made some important steps toward democracy. In early October the government halted construction on a dam project on theIrrawaddy River, saying “it was against the will of the people.” This week, the government freed 206 political prisoners.

The US government has responded enthusiastically and hinted that it will, “Meet their action with action,” according to the special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell. There’s no denying that these events could be milestones in the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, but more must be done before Burma can be called a democracy or before the US should consider easing pressure on the Burmese government.

Despite the release of 206 political prisoners, there ares till more than 1,000 political prisoners behind bars. The token release of a handful of prisoners is insufficient. The international community must maintain pressure on Burma until all political prisoners are released.

Although construction has stopped on the Myitsone dam inKachin state, the dam isn’t the only project in Burma that is protested by the Burmese people. Oil and gas pipelines, the deep water Dawei port project, a transport project in Arakan State and a dozen other dams in the country are all under construction. Rights groups have accused the government of using the army to clear civilians from the development areas without properly compensating them, and the army has committed its usual battery of human rights abuses in the process.  Most of these projects are in areas where ethnic minorities live and these groups rarely benefit from the development projects.

PHR recently finished an investigation in Kachin state which found that the Army was committing human rights abuses against the minorities there. The Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand has documented rapes and gang rapes of 34 women and girls by the Burma Army, and a gang rape by the army was reported as recently as last Friday. Over 40,000 Kachin civilians have fled their homes in fear of the Burma Army. Still, the Burmese government has denied that civilians are being displaced and has refused to provide relief for a majority of these people.

Other ethnic areas are experiencing similar abuses.  In Shan state, the Burma Army has recently implemented its “four cuts” policy, aimed at depriving opposition groups of food, funds, information, and recruits. The impact on the civilian population has been devastating. Just this summer, Shan Women’s Action Network and Shan Human Rights Foundation reported that the Burma Army has committed several abuses against Shan people, including: forced labor, extrajudicial killings and rape (pdf).

The Burmese government’s abuse of ethnic groups casts a dark shadow on the recent progress made towards democracy. The political prisoner release and the suspension of construction on Myitsone dam must be seen in perspective of everything that is happening in Burma. Of course, they are important steps toward democracy, but the government still has a long way to go. The United States government and others are right to acknowledge these steps forward, but they should be cautious about easing sanctions.  Atrocities are currently being committed on a wide scale by the Burma army and political prisoners remain behind bars.  The international community should continue to exert pressure on Burma.

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