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Secretary Clinton's Visit to Burma Must Highlight Ethnic Abuses

Andrea Gittleman, JD on November 22, 2011

From a quick glance at this week’s newspapers, it seems like Burma has made significant progress in its path to democracy and has turned a corner on its sordid history of oppression and human rights abuse. World leaders from Asia to North America are applauding the Burmese government’s recent advances, and President Obama used the changes as motivation to send Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to Burma. She will be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the country in 50 years, and her visit may signal increased willingness on the part of the U.S. government to engage with Burmese leaders. Secretary Clinton should use her trip as an opportunity to lay out a concrete roadmap to bring to an immediate end  Burma’s ongoing human rights violations and to establish accountability for past atrocities.

While Indonesia’s Foreign Minister said that he is not focusing on Burma’s past when considering that government’s fitness for the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United States needs to be an unequivocal voice for human rights  in the international community. The ambiguous approach the Obama Administration had taken through the first months of its tenure has utterly failed, and it is crucial that the United States applies the lessons learned from the previous unconditional engagement approach. The world should not forget that the heinous attacks of the Burmese government on ethnic minorities are not relics of Burma’s past but a practice that persists even today. Local groups have been documenting attacks on ethnic communities, which have continued unabated during the government’s announcements of progress. These attacks take place in rural areas of Burma, far from the eyes of mainstream media, embassy officials, and visiting dignitaries.

Over the last 12 months the Burmese Army destroyed or relocated 105 villages, displacing 112,000 people, according to the Thai-Burma Border Consortium. Most of these villages were in ethnic areas. The Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand is calling for the release of four women held as sex slaves by the Burmese Army in Kachin State, northern Burma. A Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) investigator documented war crimes committed by the Burmese Army in Kachin State in September, and just this month Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that in Kachin State the Burmese Army fired into a church, tortured the pastor, and forced 50 members of the congregation to porter military supplies. If the international community applauds the Burmese government for incremental advances while ignoring its systematic violence against ethnic groups, the government will have a free pass to continue its violations with impunity.

There have been some recent changes in Burma, and they should be recognized. The government changed its restrictions on political party participation, and now the previously barred National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, will register and operate within the national political system. The government also released approximately 200 political prisoners in October 2011 and established a national human rights commission.

These acts, while beneficial, do not sufficiently address the rampant human rights violations that continue in the country. Last month’s release of some political prisoners is a welcome advance, for example, but this “reform” is not permanent. The prisoner release was not accompanied by a thorough revision of Burma’s penal code, which continues to restrict free expression and political activity. And while the creation of the human rights commission, for example, is an essential first step to monitoring violations and protecting human rights, the real test is yet to come. It is too early to tell whether the domestic human rights body will be an independent and efficient vehicle for human rights protection in the country.

Even more dismaying is Burma’s indication that it is using announcements of releases of prisoners solely to curry favor with the international community. Last week, when ASEAN was deciding whether to allow Burma to take the chairmanship of the regional body in 2014, there was chatter about a pending release of political prisoners. The regional body may have used this apparent willingness to change to support its decision to grant Burma the chairmanship. When ASEAN made its decision to offer the chairmanship to Burma, the government then chose not to go forward with the prisoner release, although they did move some prisoners from one facility to another. While there is still talk of a release in the near future, even casual observers can see that some of the recent announcements of change coming from the Burmese government are hollow attempts to gain political concessions. Secretary Clinton and the rest of the Obama Administration should not fall into this trap and instead focus on ongoing human rights violations in the country.

Secretary Clinton has an opportunity to call attention to attacks on ethnic groups during her upcoming visit. She will have the chance to amplify the voices of people who have long suffered at the hands of the Burmese government, including minority women who have been attacked by the Burmese military. Secretary Clinton has been a longtime advocate of women’s rights, and she should continue to combat violence against women wherever it occurs – even if it occurs against a backdrop of political concessions.




Places: Burma