On August 1, 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the continuing sectarian violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Arakan State. The report, entitled “’The Government Could Have Stopped This’: Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State,” details the absence of security forces as deep seeded sectarian tensions boiled over resulting in raised villages; sword, spear and stick wielding mobs; dozens of mutilated bodies; and 100,000 displaced people.
According to HRW, Burmese security forces are guilty of more than just benign neglect. After international pressure and the threat of unrest spilling over into neighboring states forced President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency, police and paramilitary forces in Arakan State unleashed a campaign of terror against Rohingya Muslims including killing, rape, mass arrests and torture. On June 12, Rakhine mobs burned down the homes of up to 10,000 Rohingya while police and paramilitary opened fire on those Rohingya desperately trying to put out the flames with live ammunition.
One month later, on July 12, President Obama announced that his administration would begin easing sanctions on investment in Myanmar, encouraging US companies to do business in the country, including investing in projects sponsored by the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. The EU, Australia and other countries have also agreed to ease restriction on investment in Myanmar.
The lifting of sanctions and the restoring of diplomatic ties comes in response to the “flood” of reforms enacted by the “quasi-civilian” government which came into power following the November, 2010 elections. Thein Sein’s government has overseen the release of some high-profile political prisoners, the easing of media restrictions, the legalization of labor unions and the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, outlawed since winning a landslide election victory in 1990, in the political process.
While this list of reforms may seem impressive on the surface and worthy of lavish rewards by the international community, much caution is needed. According to the organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks political prisoners in Myanmar, hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up in prisons notorious for abuse and torture, the exact locations of many of these prisoners remain unknown. Despite pronouncements of increased speech and assembly freedoms, activists and demonstrators continue to be arrested and imprisoned for participating in rallies. The situation is exponentially worse in ethnic nationality areas on Myanmar’s periphery where arbitrary detention, beatings, rape and torture are epidemic.
For many Western governments, the election of Suu Kyi and 42 of her fellow NLD members to parliament in the April by-elections signaled a watershed in Myanmar’s movement towards democracy. A flurry of diplomatic activity followed the announcement that Suu Kyi had won a seat in the lower house of parliament with historic visits from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UK Foreign Minister William Hague, and a host of other diplomats eager to have their photo op with the embattled democracy campaigner and praise the speed and breadth of the government’s reforms.
The political success of Suu Kyi had become the sole metric by which many Western governments measure progress towards democracy in Myanmar. The reality, however, is that the by-elections represented a meager 8% of the 664 seats that make up both houses of parliament. Of those seats, the current Constitution automatically designates 25% to serving military officers. An additional 76% of seats are held by the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, made up largely of former military officials. Altogether, both directly and through thinly veiled proxies, the Burmese military controls about 84% of parliament, in addition to several key ministries including the powerful ministries of intelligence, defense and foreign affairs. In what sense then is Myanmar’s government even “quasi-civilian” as it’s often characterized by Western media? And how does the election of a handful of NLD members represent a sea change for democracy in the country?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. But the superficial reforms are enough to justify the easing of sanctions among Western countries, particularly the US, eager to challenge Chinese hegemony in the region and gain access to Myanmar’s lucrative oil, gas and mineral reserves. The fact that Obama’s announcement easing restrictions for US companies on investment in Myanmar followed on the heels of a brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims by security forces in the country’s Southwest should come as no surprise. The recent spate of “reforms” in 2011 and 2012 are occurring simultaneously with renewed fighting between the Burmese Army and Kachin rebels in the Northeast of Myanmar.
June 2011 witnessed the end of a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army. Several factors contributed to the renewed violence including the construction of the Dapein Chinese hydroelectric dam in Kachin state that has displaced thousands of Kachin villagers, and a rejection by the KIA of a government program to transform ethnic rebels into a government sponsored border guard force. With the renewed fighting comes a host of documented human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese Army against Kachin civilians.
Another Human Rights Watch Report dated March 2012 entitled, “’Untold Miseries’: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Kachin State,” details how 75,000 Kachin have been displaced by the violence. The government is blocking desperately needed humanitarian assistance to displaced persons and refugees while the Army continues to attack villages, raze homes, pillage properties, torture civilians, rape women and force young men and boys to become porters and slave laborers. According to Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW, “The Burmese Army is committing unchecked abuses in Kachin State while the government blocks humanitarian aid to those most in need.”
This government-sponsored terror is not confined to Kachin and Arakan states. Ethnic minorities all along Myanmar’s periphery are subject to abuse and brutality at the hands of the Burmese Army. A recent report from the Human Rights Foundation of Monland documents the use of forced labor in Mon and Karen states. The military forces young men and boys, often the sole breadwinners of their families, to act as porters for up to weeks at a time. If they refuse they are beaten and tortured. Many young men are conscripted as slave laborers to work on the Army’s rubber plantations, cultivated on land confiscated from local villagers.
Reports of abuse are widespread and continuing and yet the international community remains eager to lift sanctions and repair relations with the Myanmar government, citing the election of Suu Kyi and a handful of cosmetic reforms as justification. Western governments are not ignorant of the suffering of ethnic minorities in Myanmar; they are simply indifferent to it. For them, the veneer of democracy and human rights is enough to open the floodgates for foreign investment. Myanmar is simply too valuable, both strategically and economically, to leave to China.
The 2015 general election will be a test of Myanmar’s commitment to democracy, but the true metric for measuring progress towards democracy in Myanmar will always be its treatment of ethnic minorities, and their inclusion in the democratic process. By that metric, Myanmar is far from a democracy.