Last November, President Obama visited Burma, meeting reformist President Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But as the pace of change in the Southeast Asian country accelerates, human rights groups have criticized governments for being too quick to reward the new regime in pursuit of their own strategic and economic interests. This begs the question: Have the West and Aung San Suu Kyi abandoned their principled stand on Burma?
After Burma’s elections in 2010, reforms swept the country. Amnesty was granted to hundreds of political prisoners, new labor laws were created and press censorship was relaxed. After spending 15 years under house arrest, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi was released, joining the political mainstream as a member of parliament.
Once freed, Suu Kyi made her first trip to Europe in 24 years. She accepted her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, 21 years after it was awarded, and addressed both houses of parliament in London. After Europe, she went to the United States where she was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, meeting President Obama and a host of other politicians and public figures.
In response to Burma’s reforms, most sanctions have been lifted. Washington has normalized relations with Burma more quickly than in other cases of U.S. rapprochement since the Cold War, including post apartheid South Africa.
For years it was Suu Kyi’s courageous stand against Burma’s military dictatorship that informed Western policy. During nearly two decades of house arrest, she became a global icon, described by Amnesty International as a “human rights superstar.” The regime, by contrast, was regularly rebuked for its human rights record.
The release of political prisoners in Burma was one of the first steps toward dialogue between the military junta and Suu Kyi. Although several hundred were released, more are still being held, while threats and intimidation continue.
As the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma reported, the government “continues to use arbitrary arrest as a tool to hold members of the democracy and human rights movement behind bars often without formal charges.”
Another pre-requisite for dialogue with the regime was a tripartite dialogue between Suu Kyi, ethnic insurgents and the junta, which aimed to bring an end to the world’s longest running civil war. But this too was abandoned. Despite several ceasefires among insurgent groups, fighting continues in the north.
In 2011, just as reforms were ushered in, a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Burmese military broke down. In the ensuing violence, more than 100,000 people fled their homes. It was a pattern that had previously befallen ceasefire agreements in other parts of the country where underlying grievances remained unaddressed.