Although many people of Burma as well as local and international human rights advocates have met Burma’s reforms with scepticism, the international community was quick to embrace them. After years of diplomatic isolation and economic and military sanctions, Western countries began lifting economic sanctions, increasing development aid, and writing off billions of dollars of Burma’s foreign debt.

Village rebuilt by the KNU

While international community praises government reforms, people in Burma’s borderlands are left to survive with the help of ethnic organisations. (Photo: Burma Link)

In November 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first US Secretary of State to visit Burma in more than 50 years. In the same month, the US started some foreign aid to Burma and in January 2012 the US announced the resumption of diplomatic relations (Lee Myers, S. & Mydans, S., January, 2012). After the April 2012 by-elections the European Union decided to suspend its sanctions against Burma for one year, retaining only its embargo on arms sales (The Guardian, April, 2012). On May 20, 2012, the US suspended all of its economic sanctions against the government of Burma, with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighting that the progress in Burma toward democratisation and national reconciliation was irreversible (WLB, FDB, NY-Forum, & SYCB, 2012). On July 11, 2012, US announced an easing of the ban on US investment in and financial services to Burma for the first time in nearly 15 years (U.S. Department of State & U.S. Department of the Treasury, July 2012), ushering US businesses into the country. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Norway, and Australia have also eased sanctions.

Since her release and election to the Parliament, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has travelled extensively abroad in Thailand, Europe, and the US. In September 2012, Daw Suu Kyi completed a 17-day tour of the United States, where she met with President Barack Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal. During her visit, Daw Suu Kyi also voiced optimism for democracy in Burma (Coyne, September, 2012). Daw Suu Kyi and members of the US Congress also touted her cooperation with President Thein Sein, who visited the UN General Assembly headquarters in New York City in September 2012 (for President Thein Sein’s speech to the UN General Assembly, see Mizzima, September, 2012). Daw Suu Kyi’s trip also resulted in the further easing of sanctions on the Burmese government, including an end to the ban on imports (ND-Burma, 2012c).

On November 19, 2012, President Barack Obama also paid a historic visit to Burma, the first ever by a sitting US president. Many people of Burma were caught up in enthusiasm over this high-level visitor: “The US president’s trip means the United States has begun to focus more on Burma. It also means they have the political will to engage with Burma. It’s a good sign for anyone here who wants the democratic transition to succeed”, said author and Burmese historian Thant Myint-U (Kyaw Phyo Tha, November, 2012). Others felt that the Burmese government had not done enough to earn a personal visit from the President. The President said his visit was not an endorsement of the government but rather an acknowledgment that dramatic progress is underway (Pace, November, 2012). He also gave his speech at Rangoon University, which has been a focal point of a series of student movements against military rule in the past, signalling a symbolic gesture to support the struggle of the nation.

In January 2013, Western countries, in a body called the Paris Club, agreed to cancel 50% of the debt owed to them by Burma. Norway also agreed to cancel 100% of the debt owed to it and Japan agreed cancellation of over 60%. In addition, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank agreed a process called arrears clearance, which makes the Burmese government eligible to borrow from them again. Altogether USD 5.9 billion was agreed to be written-off and new loans to military dictatorship to begin (Jubilee Debt Campaign UK, 2013). Campaigners subsequently criticised what they regarded as a ‘premature’ debt cancellation. Anna Roberts, Executive Director at Burma Campaign UK, said: “It is incredible that Burma gets billions of dollars of debt relief when its biggest spending is on the military, an army that is committing crimes against humanity in its war against ethnic minorities. Burma’s leaders should be on trial in The Hague not getting special deals on debt relief” (Jubilee Dept Campaign UK, 2013).

On April 22, 2013, the EU decided to lift all sanctions on Burma, except its embargo on arms. Human rights advocates expressed deep concerns over the lifting of sanctions. The move to suspend sanctions was highly controversial as not one of the four benchmarks that the EU had set as conditions for lifting the sanctions one year before had been met. According to the Burma Campaign UK (April, 2013): “European Union members have abandoned hundreds of political prisoners and downgraded human rights as a priority in Burma, following their decision to lift all sanctions on Burma except arms”. The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) also warned the EU that it was too early to lift sanctions on Burma as human rights violations are still happening and there are “no obvious changes in Burma during the peace talks between ethnic groups and the government” (S’Phan Shaung, April, 2013).

On May 20, 2013, Thein Sein became the first president of Burma to visit the US White House in 47 years (see e.g. MacAskill, May, 2013). President Obama praised Thein Sein for political and economic reforms, and the two governments agreed to sign a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement on May 21, 2013 (Office of the United States Trade Representative, May, 2013).

In June 2013, The International Labor Organization (ILO) lifted its remaining restrictions on Burma, in a move that Burma’s government hopes will boost trade and increase foreign investment (Michaels, June, 2013). The restrictions, which were imposed by the UN agency in 2000, included a recommendation that its 185 member states limit relations with Burma to avoid perpetuating forced labour in the country.

Human rights violations continue

Forced labour continues in Burma. (Photo: KHRG)

Due to the lifting of sanctions and the encouragement of investment in Burma, it is likely that the number of development projects in Burma will keep increasing in the coming years. This is a significant concern for the people of Burma who have witnessed a long and painful history of unscrupulous military and government involvement in development projects. The most attractive areas for investment such as natural oil and gas overlap with the ethnic areas and have been linked directly to abuses against ethnic nationalities. Investment and construction projects have destroyed local environments, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and fuelled ethnic conflict. Physicians for Human Rights found that human rights violations in Karen areas were up to ten times more prevalent in areas with development projects as compared to other areas (Davis et al., 2012). Karen Human Rights Group’s (KHRG) recent report also indicates that natural resource extraction and business projects fuel human rights violations in the Karen State (KHRG, 2013a). Similar findings around development projects have been found in other parts of the country (see e.g. Human Rights Watch, 2012c). In October, 2013, an umbrella group of Arakanese civic organisations, NGOs and political parties issued a statement demanding a halt to all natural resource extraction projects in the state until a genuine federal system is implemented in the country (DVB, October, 2013).

Investment should arguably not be synonymous with forced labour, forced relocation and other abuse. It has been argued that with economic sanctions removed, the US government is knowingly putting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people at risk of losing their lives and their livelihood in exchange for American profits (see Economy and Development). Without active steps by the international community or the businesses themselves, the number of human rights violations stands to increase as more projects are initiated. Some have voiced concerns over a lack of regulations that prohibit US companies from participating in or benefiting from human rights violations (e.g. Davis et al., 2012). Given the ongoing human rights violations in ethnic nationality areas, it has been argued that the US should continue to press for key improvements, including open access to health care and the establishment of accountability for human rights violators (e.g. Davis et al., 2012). Companies operating in Burma should verify that their members and partners take all necessary steps to ensure that their activities are not contributing to human rights violations or environmental degradation.

Many have also argued that as human rights violations continue in the country, sanctions have been lifted prematurely. According to ND-Burma (2012b): “The fundamental conditions for which the sanctions were initially imposed remain, and the steps taken by the government towards reform have been modest, ineffective and have yet to lead to any real change”. In a similar vein, WLB et al. argued in 2012 that “the economic sanctions of the US on Burma were originally adopted because of the disregard for democratic principles and grave human right violations committed by the Burmese government. These violations continue but the pressure for the Burmese government to stop them is now removed” (WLB et al., 2012). These calls remain current today.

Free Burma Rangers (FBR) reported in January 2012 that villagers and local leaders in the Karen State, when asked about any changes since Burma’s elections one year before, almost uniformly responded that there have been no significant changes. More recent reports from south-eastern Burma, however, indicate that recent ceasefires have resulted in less direct attacks and assaults on civilians (TBC, 2013). Nevertheless, as pointed out by ND-Burma (2012a); “Much remains to be done before the people of Burma can enjoy the rights and freedoms guaranteed by both the international and domestic law”. Functional and institutional guarantees of justice and accountability are still lacking in Burma, all the while more international crimes are being committed with impunity (FIDH, ALTSEAN-Burma, FORUM-ASIA, & FDB, 2012; IHRC, 2014a; WLB, 2014a). The perpetrators go unpunished and justice and accountability remain unaddressed.

While the Burmese government has made several changes to bring the country closer to a democracy, ethnic populations in country’s border areas continue to suffer. Political prisoners who remain behind bars in Burma’s jails and hundreds of thousands of IDPs living in fear are also yet to share the jubilation of these preliminary political reforms. Western governments also seem to ignore that while they made the ending of conflict between the Burmese army and ethnic groups a requirement for the lifting of sanctions, the ongoing war in Kachin and northern Shan States has displaced at least 100,000 civilians (Fortify Rights, 2014a). The dire human rights and humanitarian situation for Burma’s Kachin people has arguably received inadequate domestic and international attention. At the time when the changes in Burma have been loudly applauded in the West and in the international media, the Burmese army has attacked, killed, raped, and tortured civilians in Kachin State, constituting serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law (Fortify Rights, 2014a; Human Rights Watch, 2012c; KWAT, 2013a, 2013b).

International community should take into consideration that many grave human rights violations have been documented during the period of time when the political landscape in Burma has undergone noticeable shifts (e.g. Davis et al., 2012; ND-Burma, 2012b, 2012c, 2013a, 2013b, 2014a). Primarily Burmese army-run human rights violations continue not only in Kachin State but also in other ethnic border areas of the country, particularly in the Shan and Karen states (e.g. Davis et al., 2012; ND-Burma, 2012c, 2013a, 2013b, 2014a, 2014b). According to ND-Burma’s latest report, covering the period between July and December 2014, the numerous findings on human right violations demonstrate that the government is doing little to protect human rights in the country and is instead using restrictive and oppressive laws to arrest human right defenders (ND-Burma 2015a).

Shan State Army-South (SSA-S)

Entrance to SSA-S military base camp. (Photo: Sai Kwan)

Although the government has reached preliminary ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups, ceasefire agreements in Burma are highly controversial and have a history of failure as they have typically ignored political goals of ethnic nationalities and often resulted in increased tension, controversial development projects, and more human rights violations (see Pattern of State Abuse). Fighting and skirmished have also often continued despite ceasefires. In the Shan State for example, The Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) reported over 30 violations of their ceasefire agreement by the Burmese military during 2012, with skirmishes continuing into 2013 (see TBC, 2013, p. 14). During March 2015, the same month that the draft Nationawide Ceasefire Agreement was agreed upon, 48 clashes took place between the ethnic armed groups and the Burma Army, which is one of the highest number of clashes in any month in over a year (Myanmar Peace Monitor, 2015). The high number of clashes since the beginning of 2015 exposes the incongruity of the peace talks and the reality on the ground as well as the fragility of the peace process.

The absence of hostilities is necessary but not sufficient for national reconciliation, and even the release of all political prisoners and the presence of the NLD in the Parliament could not alone guarantee a successful transition to democracy (FIDH et al., 2012). According to Women’s League of Burma (WLB): “Sustainable peace and reconciliation require genuine political and legislative reforms that would overcome the structural obstacles to the Rule of Law, address the long-standing grievances of ethnic groups, including the Rohingya, ensure equality and non-discrimination in both law and practice, and protect the right of all citizens to participate freely in democratic society” (WLB et al., 2012). As voiced by WLB et al. (2012), the international community may be applauding President Thein Sein’s approach to peace and reform far beyond the current improvements as the steps taken towards democratisation and national reconciliation are reversible. Similar views criticising premature rewards and engagement with the Burmese government have also recently been put forward (see e.g. Enos, October 2013; see also Myanmar Civil Society Organizations, October, 2014).

Updated April 29, 2015

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