“…only by choosing these values for themselves can leaders in Burma effect real change…and only by creating the democratic structure that protects these fundamental rights can Burma create the climate of trust and confidence needed for investment and economic growth. It is not an easy road, but it can lead the extraordinary people of Burma toward the country they deserve: a country that prioritizes human rights protection and political participation, and gives a voice to all”. (Óscar Arias Sánchez, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1987, and the President of Costa Rica (1986-1990 and 2006-2010), in Davis, Gittleman, Sollom, Richards & Beyrer, 2012)
Whilst profound change must come from Burma itself, international community response undoubtedly plays a central role in the process. While some people of Burma believe that there is space for the international community to work in Burma, many others have lost hope for the international community to help the people and the country. There are also significant concerns that despite abundant evidence of continuing systematic repression and violence in Burma, foreign government officials have been quick to embrace the recent government reforms and to ease sanctions and encourage investment (see International response to recent reforms). Despite what has been characterised as the slow genocide of ethnic nationalities (e.g. La Guardia, June, 2005; Rogers, 2004) the UN has failed to establish a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the alleged international crimes in Burma.
“I want to know if political change in Burma is possible? Can powerful nations influence our situation? If so, please help us”. (Karen man, Pa’an Township, interviewed in June 2008; TBC 2008, p. 9)
The progress and quality of the reforms and the human rights situation in Burma require the close attention and sustained action of the international community in order to ensure that the small positive steps taken by the Burmese government are transformed into substantive and irreversible reforms, and that previous recommendations made by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council are fully implemented (WLB, FDB, NY-Forum, & SYCB, 2012).
Sanctions are key tools through which the international community can press for further change in Burma, and decisions about changing policies should arguably reflect the country’s current human rights and humanitarian situations. The international community, in cooperation with local NGOs and CBOs, should thus support regular and systematic monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Burma. Considering that one of the primary objectives of the UN is securing universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals throughout the world, the UN should also arguably take a more decisive role in Burma, and support the people of Burma in their quest for accountability and justice and addressing crimes of the past in a manner that will lead to a peaceful future.
At a time when the international community is shifting its policies toward Burma, it is important not to silence the voices of ethnic communities in Burma, “after all, the collection and exchange of information, the real assessment of problems and progress, and the inclusion of viewpoints that have not been heard are all hallmarks of the democratic process” (Óscar Arias Sánchez,a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 1987, and the President of Costa Rica (1986-1990 and 2006-2010, in Davis, Gittleman, Sollom, Richards & Beyrer, 2012).
Óscar Arias Sánchez argues that we must hold up the stories of the oppressed ethnic groups to guarantee that their voice is heard in the democratic process, as means to evaluate both the extent of reform and current humanitarian needs in Burma. When providing international development assistance in Burma, it must also be ensured that the requirements of transparency and accountability to the civilian population are met.
Investment in Burma’s growth will be essential in the coming years if the country is to make real progress. As economic development projects in Burma have been directly linked with increased human right violations (e.g. Davis, Gittleman, Sollom, Richards & Beyrer, 2012; KHRG, 2013a), it is critical that all parties involved ensure that development projects do not harm local communities by contributing to human rights violations or environmental degradation. Development projects in Burma must be implemented with protections for civilians’ rights. With the resource-rich Burma slowly opening up to international business, it is imperative that the international community continues to place human rights before increasing opportunities for trade and business.
Should the international community be ready and equipped to take on a decisive role in Burma, it could act as a facilitator between the various actors in the country, such as the government, ethnic nationality leaders, and political parties. It could also help with capacity building, awareness training, and all-round education as well as humanitarian assistance, both inside and outside Burma. It is important to ensure that all peoples of Burma have access to basic services including education and health care.
Global and local cooperation will also play an essential role. More engagement with ASEAN, India and China is important if the international community is to push Burma’s government toward more positive changes in the country. It is also imperative that countries have a consistent policy in Burma in that they do not act as transmitters of peace and development all the while taking part in the government’s exploitative practices. Foreign governments must not only cooperate with each other but also with NGOs and CBOs in order to create a shared vision and shared goals for the future of Burma. International actors must cooperate with different international and domestic actors on all levels of activities. Inter-ethnic cooperation is also essential in any serious attempts to bring about peace and justice in Burma.
The international community must also not forget the hundreds of thousands who remain displaced inside and outside Burma’s troubled borders. The international community should work together with the myriad pro-democracy movements and organisations in exile in order to build mutual understanding and cooperation and to utilise the local capacity and expertise that has been built over the past two decades. The international community must recognise the fundamental role that Burmese organisations in exile play in the national reconciliation and democratisation process in Burma. International donor community should thus not only ensure that these organisations can continue their work but also to cooperate with cross-border CBOs when designing humanitarian or human rights programs.
It is thus regrettable that since the November 2010 elections, organisations and people along the Thailand-Burma border have suffered from unprecedented budget cuts that have severely hampered pro-democracy and aid efforts as well as human rights documentation work along the border (for more information, see Funding cuts on the border). It is absurd that at the time of democratic transition, international donors would cut their support to the organisations that have built capacity and worked for change on the border since the 1980s. It may also seem unbelievable that many donors have chosen to channel aid to urban areas in Burma at the expense of vulnerable ethnic nationalities in eastern Burma. It seems that the voices of the people of Burma are once again silenced in international community’s praise for the government’s reforms. All the above contribute to a continuance of oppression and suffering and lack of political involvement for the ethnic nationalities, thus impeding efforts toward national reconciliation and a genuine transition to democracy. According to Kevin Malseed, program manager for Inter Pares, “it is extremely naïve and counterproductive to drop cross-border aid and initiatives to “reinvent the wheel” in Rangoon” (see Saw Yan Naing, May, 2012).
An interconnected issue is related to the discussion on closing down the refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border. The international community should ensure that the displaced people of Burma are not forcibly repatriated all too soon. Repatriation should only occur when refugees can go back voluntarily with a sense of dignity and hope, and when they feel secure about not facing persecution or violence in Burma. The UNHCR should assure non-refoulement and continue supporting refugee camps in Thailand until such time as refugees can return safely. International community should be careful about engaging in any discussions with regard to the repatriation of refugees until there is genuine peace and democracy in Burma. The initiation of mine-clearance programs should also be supported before refugees return to high-risk areas.
Importantly, all attempts by external actors to address the humanitarian crisis in Burma require a clear acknowledgement and awareness of the local context. Gaining an understanding of the context of different ethnic groups in Burma is imperative for international actors who work on issues such as human rights, humanitarian aid, trade, development and peace building. External actors must listen to local voices and use such perspectives as the starting point for intervention and assistance. Regrettably, local voices are often ignored; KHRG (2013a) describes a Norwegian government funded project established in cooperation with the Burmese government in the Karen State, where a residential area was built upon what used to be the villagers’ communal farming area. Villagers were not consulted and the project and the construction of the road for the area rendered the land insufficient to sustain the needs of the community.
Also, considering the funding shortages that ethnic nationalities are currently facing along the Thailand-Burma border, it seems that many international actors are unaware of the ethnic dynamics of the conflict in Burma, an issue also raised by many people of Burma:
“The international community should know more about the complexities and history of the people, especially tribal people. Unless they understand the background of Burma, and ethnic groups, they won’t be much help to Burma. If they have knowledge about ethnic groups and their backgrounds, they can plan more effectively on their role in promoting peace and democracy in this country”. (Middle-aged Karenni male Catholic priest; Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010, p. 199)
“I would suggest to the international community that they learn more about the ethnic groups in Burma”. (Young man from northern Shan state; Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, 2010, p. 327)
Ethnic conflict lies at the very heart of the problems in Burma (for more information, see Dynamics of Ethnic Conflict) and although it is often cited in the context of ethnic rebellions and guerrilla fighters, more appropriately termed as freedom fighters, the reasons behind ethnic grievances and associated armed struggles are rarely considered. The first step is awareness; the international community must be aware of the complexities involving different ethnic groups and their histories in order to take effective and just action. This includes understanding the history of divisions between armed groups and the government (History of Armed Opposition), including the legacy of colonialism and the conditions under which the civil war broke out at independence (History Since Colonisation), as well as knowing the past and present government policies towards ethnic groups (Burmanisation and Discrimination). Inter-ethnic issues cannot be pushed to the periphery where the Burmese army has attempted to push them for decades. For true justice and reconciliation, it is imperative that all ethnic groups’ voices are heard and that all groups are treated equally and with the same respect. Ethnic nationalities in eastern Burma have been hit the hardest, and as a consequence, inter-ethnic grievances, mistrust and prejudice must also be addressed. Supporting and facilitating inter-ethnic understanding and harmony is thus also essential.
It is time for the international community to show that they can support and listen to the voices of the people of Burma in a common quest for bringing positive change in the country.
Updated October 28, 2014Continue to Recent Developments