The response of the international community to the conflict in Burma has varied considerably. Western nations have typically had strained relations with Burma due to the country’s bleak human rights record, Asian nations have maintained diplomatic and economic relations to varying degrees, whereas international organisations have exerted considerable pressure on the Burmese government all the while some of their projects have been conducted in cooperation with the same government . The response of the international community has been all but consistent.

Considerable pressure has been exerted on the Burmese government at both the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the UN General Assembly have repeatedly called on the Burmese military to stop human rights violations and numerous governments and organisations have called for a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the international crimes in Burma. Human rights pressure has also been maintained by major international awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991.

Graveyard

Thousands have been killed by the government forces in Burma and millions continue to suffer as a result of human rights abuses committed in a culture of impunity.(Photo: Liz Bordo)

By the mid-1990s, reports of severe human rights violations led the US government to introduce sanctions against the Burmese government, including an arms embargo, cessation of trade preferences, and suspension of all except humanitarian aid. By the early 2000s, China, India, Thailand, and a few oil companies were some of the only entities engaged in business inside Burma. Asian countries, in general, have followed a policy of constructive engagement with the Burmese military government. They have commonly maintained diplomatic relations with Burma, and Asian corporations have continued investing in the country.

Burma’s neighbours have often criticised Western governments for apparent contradictions in their policies as many Western oil companies have been among the biggest foreign investors in Burma. Burma has had relatively close relations with other Southeast Asian countries: Burma has been a member of ASEAN since 1997, and it is scheduled to host the ASEAN summit in 2014. ASEAN Constitution holds that the countries are not to interfere with other ASEAN countries’ internal affairs.

Burma’s relations with neighbouring China and India have been especially close, although Burma’s relationship with India has changed over time due to concerns and conflicts over refugee and border issues. Burma has also received extensive military aid from China and India in the past. China has initiated numerous massive and controversial projects in Burma, which have resulted in large scale human rights violations in northern Burma, particularly in the Shan and Kachin states. Some Chinese investments in Burma include a series of massive hydro-electric dams on the Irrawaddy River in upper Burma as well as agri-business ventures in northern Burma, which have led to land confiscation by Burmese authorities. In September 2011, President Thein Sein suspended work on the Myitsone dam, the largest in a series of several planned dams (see Human Rights Watch, 2012a). Whilst this move was received positively inside Burma, it led to strained relations between the Chinese and the Burmese government. India also continues to invest in mining projects in Burma, and it has initiated construction of a major infrastructure project for the Kaladan River in western Burma (see Human Rights Watch, 2012a).

While Thailand’s foreign politics and strength of political relations with Burma have fluctuated over time depending on the country’s current diplomatic and economic concerns, the two have maintained strong trade relations throughout. Thailand’s focus in Burma has been mainly on economic issues and trade rather than respect for human rights; the same year that the Burmese government killed and imprisoned thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the 8888 uprising, Thailand broke the SLORC’s isolation by agreeing to cross-border logging contracts (TBC, 2004). Until mid-2009, Thailand was the regime’s strongest business partner and Thai businesses have poured huge amounts of capital into the construction of hydropower dams on the Salween (see Thai-Burma relations). Thailand is also a major purchaser of Burma’s gas and oil; natural gas sales to Thailand still account for the largest share of the Burmese government’s foreign exchange earnings (Human Rights Watch, 2012a).

Women in Myawaddi

The Burmese border town of Myawaddi opposite to Mae Sot in Tak Province, Thailand, is a major cross-border trade hub largely due to Asian highway that connects Rangoon to the border. (Photo: Ariana Zarleen)

The Thai government has periodically called on the Burmese government to release political prisoners and to hold elections, but it has also repeatedly threatened to close down the camps along the Thailand-Burma border (see e.g. Chitradon, April, 2011; Karen News, July, 2014). Thailand has also deported thousands of Burmese people who have been in need of international protection (see e.g. Human Rights Watch, 2012e). Millions of Burmese refugees and migrants reside in Thailand where the majority of them are illegal aliens subject to deportation and abuse (Green-Rauenhorst, Jacobsen, & Pyne, 2008). For more information, refer to Burmese exiles outside the camps.

Today Burma has close relationships with China, Thailand, and other countries in Southeast Asia. Russia, China, and North Korea continue to sell arms to Burma, despite frequently voiced US objections (Human Rights Watch, 2012a; see also Lintner, September 2013). According to some observers, Burma’s arms imports have soared in the past few years, particularly from Russia and China (Sommer, December, 2013).

Some human rights organisations such as the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) have criticised foreign governments, UN agencies and international NGOs for their eagerness to engage with the military regime in the delivery of funds and services for diverse aid initiatives in the past (KHRG, 2007, p. 4). KHRG claims that SPDC has been able to utilise large internationally funded projects to further its political agenda and undermine the rights of villagers in Karen areas. UNICEF, UNDP, UNAIDS, CARE and Medecins du Monde, for example, have all provided funding for SPDC associations. UNESCAP has been supporting SPDC in the development of the Asian Highway, which in the Karen State has involved land confiscation and forced labour of local villagers.

KHRG (2007) has called for international organisations and governments to recognise that international development assistance must meet the requirements of transparency and accountability to the civilian population, and must ensure that assistance does not undermine the rights of local people.

Burma’s recent reforms have considerably changed the country’s foreign relations especially with Western countries, who have generally exercised a policy of critical dialogue whereby relations depend on the pace of reform. The international community uses different measures for reform, including the release of political prisoners, signing of ceasefires, and the ILO’s assessment of Burma. For more information on the recent changes, go to International Response to Recent Reforms.

One major problem is that the international community response to the conflict in Burma has often ignored the fundamental dynamics of the conflict and its ethnic underpinnings. Many people in Burma feel that the international community oversimplifies the context and conflict in Burma, and is not aware of the underlying dynamics of the conflict. If the international community fails to understand the complex history of the different groups and their relations they cannot aid Burma in its quest for inter-ethnic harmony and justice.

 

Updated October 28, 2014

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