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.
Just before Suu Kyi went to Europe last year, sectarian violence erupted in Rahkine state between the Muslim Rohingya minority and the majority Buddhist Rahkine. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and military rule was re-imposed in the region. During her trips abroad, Suu Kyi said virtually nothing about the civil war or ethnic violence in Burma.
The military is the chief obstacle to meaningful change in Burma, as it has dominated the country’s landscape for almost half a century. Despite the euphoria of reform, junta leaders have escaped closer scrutiny. It is the army that remains the ultimate arbiter of power in Burma as well as its largest employer.
President Thein Sein has ordered a cessation to fighting in Kachin. Army commanders have, however, ignored him, raising questions about how much real control Thein Sein has over the military. The 2008 Constitution, which was pushed through by the military regime, gives the army, under Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, complete legal autonomy and immunity for its actions.
The U.S. and UK have remained silent about the armed forces’ continued abuses, which include rape and torture. In the rush to re-engage Burma, the U.S. military even invited members of Burma’s armed forces to observe the annual Cobra Gold military exercise, held from February 11 to 21, and jointly conducted by the militaries of the U.S., Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Refugees who have been displaced by fighting in Kachin state view the West’s relationship with the new government with a mixture of hope and alarm. “They [Western governments] believe in the changes,” a Kachin aid worker said. “I believe some of them, but the Burmese army is still very powerful”.
After decades of military rule and civil war, deep distrust prevails. “The Burmese are lying,” another Kachin refugee said. “They always lie”.
Despite a recent ceasefire, the Burmese army has continued to advance on the Kachin town of Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation. International aid workers have had difficulty reaching civilians in the region after being cut off by fighting between rebels and the Burmese military. Suu Kyi has come under fire for her silence on the hardships suffered by Kachin civilians.
Some believe Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t been more vocal on the civil war or the violence in Rakhine because she is playing a delicate balancing act, being careful not to push the army too hard lest they take control again.
She has argued that she prefers not to “take sides” to avoid inflaming the conflict. But this has come at a cost and the Kachin people feel increasingly abandoned. “Her focus is collecting awards and becoming President, rather than the suffering of our people,” one Kachin aid worker told The Independent.
As Suu Kyi and members of her party enter the political mainstream, there is a danger that many ethnic minorities will see this as further evidence of Burman dominance of the political landscape. Her presence in parliament legitimizes a system created by a regime that not only kept her under house arrest for 15 years, but also tried to assassinate her.
Despite all of this, Suu Kyi recently told the BBC of her fondness for the military. And although her father is revered by many inside Burma today, this reverence is far from universal.
General Aung San was the founder of the very army the Kachin and others have spent decades fighting. Further, parliament remains dominated by the military and its allies, who hold the vast majority of seats. Coupled with the deep-seated antipathy between ethnic minorities and the Burman majority, Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue reinforces suspicions that the new government was formed through an “elite pact.”
When she was sworn into Burma’s new parliament in April 2012, Suu Kyi made the transition from a figure of principle to a politician. Now she must choose between the ideals that earned her the elevated position she is vaunted for and the business of effecting real change.
A USAID report warned that, without a determined and sustained effort to resolve civil and ethnic conflict, a lasting solution to Burma’s crisis is unlikely to emerge. It is also unrealistic to place the burden of finding a solution on the shoulders of a single politician. Suu Kyi’s status has brought with it impossibly high expectations.
Meanwhile, change in Burma continues at a dizzying pace. Many investors are rushing in to exploit the new market. Strategically placed between India and China, Burma is viewed as a final frontier for business, a cheap labor pool and a country rich in natural resources.
The danger is that the cause of human and democratic rights will be sidelined or ignored as the West re-engages with Burma in pursuit of its own economic and strategic interests. The problems that have plagued ordinary people under military rule – poverty, forced labor, land grabs, harassment and intimidation – continue. Ironically, the years of military rule have made the country vulnerable to exactly the kind of exploitation the army once used to justify its hold on power.
With the rise of sectarian violence in the west and the continued civil war in the north, this continued silence bolsters the military’s belief in unity by force. As long as this silence prevails, the army will be a law unto itself.
Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based photographer, author and co-director of the Emmy-nominated HBO film Burma Soldier. His new book, Brave New Burma, will be published by Dewi Lewis in the spring.