From a quick glance at this week’s newspapers, it seems likeBurma has made significant progress in its path to democracy and has turned acorner on its sordid history of oppression and human rights abuse. Worldleaders from Asia to North America are applauding the Burmese government’srecent advances, and President Obama used the changes as motivation to sendSecretary of State Hilary Clinton to Burma. She will be the first U.S.Secretary of State to visit the country in 50 years, and her visit may signalincreased willingness on the part of the U.S. government to engage with Burmeseleaders. Secretary Clinton should use her trip as an opportunity to lay out aconcrete roadmap to bring to an immediate end Burma’s ongoing human rights violations and to establish accountabilityfor past atrocities.
While Indonesia’s Foreign Minister said that he is notfocusing on Burma’s past when considering that government’s fitness for thechairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the UnitedStates needs to be an unequivocal voice for human rights in the international community. The ambiguousapproach the Obama Administration had taken through the first months of itstenure has utterly failed, and it is crucial that the United States applies thelessons learned from the previous unconditional engagement approach. The worldshould not forget that the heinous attacks of the Burmese government on ethnicminorities are not relics of Burma’s past but a practice that persists eventoday. Local groups have been documenting attacks on ethnic communities, whichhave continued unabated during the government’s announcements of progress.These attacks take place in rural areas of Burma, far from the eyes ofmainstream media, embassy officials, and visiting dignitaries.
Over the last 12 months the Burmese Army destroyed orrelocated 105 villages, displacing 112,000 people, according to the Thai-Burma Border Consortium. Most of these villages were in ethnicareas. The Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand is callingfor the release of four women held as sex slaves by the Burmese Army in KachinState, northern Burma. A Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) investigatordocumented war crimes committed by the Burmese Army in Kachin State inSeptember, and just this month Christian Solidarity Worldwide reportedthat in Kachin State the Burmese Army fired into a church, tortured the pastor,and forced 50 members of the congregation to porter military supplies. If theinternational community applauds the Burmese government for incrementaladvances while ignoring its systematic violence against ethnic groups, thegovernment will have a free pass to continue its violations with impunity.
There have been some recent changes in Burma, and theyshould be recognized. The government changed its restrictions on politicalparty participation, and now the previously barred National League forDemocracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, willregister and operate within the national political system. The government also releasedapproximately 200 political prisoners in October 2011 and established anational human rights commission.
These acts, while beneficial, do not sufficiently addressthe rampant human rights violations that continue in the country. Last month’srelease of some political prisoners is a welcome advance, for example, but this“reform” is not permanent. The prisoner release was not accompanied by athorough revision of Burma’s penal code, which continues to restrict freeexpression and political activity. And while the creation of the human rightscommission, for example, is an essential first step to monitoring violationsand protecting human rights, the real test is yet to come. It is too early totell whether the domestic human rights body will be an independent andefficient vehicle for human rights protection in the country.
Even more dismaying is Burma’s indication that it is usingannouncements of releases of prisoners solely to curry favor with theinternational community. Last week, when ASEAN was deciding whether to allowBurma to take the chairmanship of the regional body in 2014, there was chatterabout a pending release of political prisoners. The regional body may have usedthis apparent willingness to change to support its decision to grant Burma thechairmanship. When ASEAN made its decision to offer the chairmanship to Burma,the government then chose not to go forward with the prisoner release, althoughthey did move some prisoners from one facility to another. While there is stilltalk of a release in the near future, even casual observers can see that someof the recent announcements of change coming from the Burmese government arehollow attempts to gain political concessions. Secretary Clinton and the restof the Obama Administration should not fall into this trap and instead focus onongoing human rights violations in the country.
Secretary Clinton has an opportunity to call attention toattacks on ethnic groups during her upcoming visit. She will have the chance toamplify the voices of people who have long suffered at the hands of the Burmesegovernment, including minority women who have been attacked by the Burmesemilitary. Secretary Clinton has been a longtime advocate of women’s rights, andshe should continue to combat violence against women wherever it occurs – evenif it occurs against a backdrop of political concessions.