Despite heartening news since 2010 when the military-backed government released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and began a series of political reforms, recurring violence and looming humanitarian crises raise questions of the government’s ability and willingness to protect civilians.
High-level United Nations officials and independent human rights groups continue to report evidence of direct state complicity in ethnic cleansing and severe human rights abuses, blocking of humanitarian aid, and incitement of anti-Muslim violence, constituting ominous warning signs of genocide.
Yet, the international community continues to reward the Burmese government. Many sanctions have been lifted, high-level diplomats have visited, and there has been increased economic and military cooperation. Reforms made should be recognized, but moving too fast in strengthening ties and ignoring the ongoing abuses puts in danger both the civilians currently being targeted and hopes for reforms that will actually last.
Conflict in Context
Burma has long been a global pariah for its suppression of human rights. Since taking control of the country in 1962, the Burmese military government has waged counter-insurgency campaigns against ethnic minorities in Kachin, Shan, Karen, Kayah and Mon States leading to widespread civilian deaths.
8888 Uprising and the 1990 Election
Student led demonstrations broke out in March 1988 in response to deteriorating economic conditions. The protests grew in strength and widened their demands to include democratization. On August 8, 1988 the Burmese military violently reacted, killing over 1,000 protesters.
The daughter of General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi, emerged during this time as a leader of the opposition. Her party won over 80% of the seats in Parliament during elections in 1990, but the military refused to relinquish power, instead placing Suu Kyi under house arrest.
The removal of fuel subsidies unleashed massive demonstrations. After the largest, estimated at 100,000 protesters, the regime began violent crackdowns, arresting over 6,000 people.
2008 Cyclone Nargis and New Constitution
On May 3, 2008 Cyclone Nargis destroyed the country, killing an estimated 130,000 people. Despite the massive destruction, Burma’s isolationist regime denied access to international aid workers.
Shockingly, the regime moved forward during this period with a referendum on a new military-backed constitution. Burma’s government reported that the constitution was approved by 92% of the voters. Changes to the constitution included:
- 25% of all parliamentary seats reserved for military officers.
- Anyone married to a non-Burmese is barred from running for the office of president, effectively prohibiting Aung San Suu Kyi from running for the presidency.
2010 & 2012 Elections
After elections in 2010, the military-backed government released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and began a series of political reforms.
In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in the April 1st, 2012 by-elections marking a significant step in Burma’s path towards political reform.
2015 Elections and the Risk of Genocide
The run-up to the November 2015 national elections in Burma presents both an opportunity and a threat.
Elections provide community organizers, political reformers and human rights advocates with opportunities for communication, organization and engagement with the public.
As recent history has demonstrated, however, elections can also exacerbate social tensions and fuel violence. This is a particular danger for Burma where violent attacks, fueled by campaigns of hate and intolerance against Muslim minority populations as well as long-standing tensions with other ethnic minority groups throughout the country, have created extremely volatile conditions.
Leaders in Burma have little incentive to stand up and speak out against this fear and hatred and the few that do are often attacked themselves. In order to address the looming dangers of further violence, it will be necessary to support and empower those internal voices for peace with others from the region and across the world.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from the northern Rakhine State in western Burma. Despite having lived in Burma for decades mainly in Arakan State, the Rohingya are considered “foreigners” by the Burmese government that believes they are illegal Bengali migrants.
The Burmese government has isolated and demonized the 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Act denies the Rohingya people citizenship, and forces them to claim to be Bengali migrants, allowing the government to easily deport them. They are limited in their rights to marry, have children, work, obtain healthcare and go to school. Burma’s President Thein Sein has declared “There are no Rohingya” in Burma and they were denied recognition in the 2014 census.
Fleeing violence, over 140,000 Rohingya live in what many describe as “concentration camps” where they face severe
restrictions and are denied basic necessities including medical care. Since 2012, an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled Burma by boat. Apart from the risk of drowning, many of those who flee fall into the hands of human traffickers, and are forced to work on rubber plantations or in the sex trade.
Ethnic Discrimination & Warning Signs of Genocide
Ethnic discrimination continues to be pervasive in Burmese policy. In 2011, ethnic conflict escalated as longstanding ceasefires with ethnic groups broke down in northern Burma. The UN Human Rights Council has consistently cited concerns about “human rights violations including arbitrary detention, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as violations of humanitarian law.”
- The Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority are considered by the UN to be one of the most oppressed people on Earth as their existence is denied completely but the Burmese government, who has forced them to claim Bengali nationality, trapping them into deportation or life on a concentration camp.
- The Kachin Christian minority have consistently been targeted for their Christian beliefs. The Burmese government has even offered rewards for their conversion to Buddhism –exemption from forced labor, lower prices for basic food and greater educational opportunities. They have been the targets of mass shelling by the Burmese military and the victims of gross human rights abuses including being used as human landmine shields, rape, torture, disappearance, forced relocation, and the destruction of food and property.
- The Shan community lives unprotected against damaging environmental drilling and hazardous dumping from government-sponsored mining projects that families use for agricultural and domestic use.
- The Chin Christian minority continue to be persecuted as restrictions are put on their ability to visibly practice Christianity. Many Chin are part of forced labor programs through the army and are banned from attending culturally-Chin private schools.
- The Karen minority live in a resource-rich area that makes them at higher risk to be forcibly evicted from their homes, being demanded to work for the army, and being physically attacked and tortured.
The Burmese government has held cease-fire talks with these various ethnic armed groups as part of a peace initiative to end decades of civil war.
But the continued systematic discrimination and violence perpetrated against ethnic minorities raises questions about the extent to which the President is truly in control of the military and whether or not he has the ability to enforce peace agreements.
The U.S. Response
The Obama administration appointed Derek Mitchell as the U.S. Ambassador to Burma in 2012, lifted a travel ban on some of the country’s senior leaders and eased sanctions on American investments. In November 2012, President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Burma and he returned in November 2014.
While a ban on gems remains, President Obama waived sanctions on most imports and in 2013 the U.S. Congress allowed sanctions under the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act to expire.
Military to military relations have also been advancing without clear benchmarks for reform and addressing ongoing human rights abuses. The United States allowed Burmese officers to observe joint U.S.-Thailand military exercises and has begun limited exchanges.
What are We Asking for?
International Commission of Inquiry: The failure of the Burmese government to credibly investigate recent and historic violence requires an international commission of inquiry to look into both recent violence in Rakhine state and central Burma, as well as to address past abuses in other parts of the country including Kachin and Shan states.
Benchmarked cooperation: Any further economic, political, or military cooperation should be based on clearly met benchmarks including allowing all humanitarian groups to reopen health clinics and services in Rakhine State, establishing an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burma, ending severe human rights violations, allowing unfettered access to international humanitarian aid throughout Burma, nationwide negotiations with minority groups, and constitutional and judicial reforms to hold the military accountable.
Maintain sanctions: Existing economic and political sanctions should be maintained until key benchmarks have been met. The U.S. sanctions list of “Specially Designated Nationals” should be updated to include individuals responsible for perpetrating recent violence.
Help the Rohingya Fleeing Threats of Genocide
Fleeing the threat of genocide in Burma, over 100,000 ethnic minority Rohingya have taken a perilous journey to leave the country by sea.
The Rohingya are fleeing horrific Apartheid-like conditions where 140,000 are confined in what many describe as "concentration camps" and what the U.S. Holocaust Museum has described as "early warning signs of genocide".
With an enormous amount of influence in Burma, the U.S. has a moral obligation to confront the source of this hell – Burma’s systematic repression and endangerment of 1.3 million Rohingya people living there.
Unless the policies of hate end in Burma, the crisis will only escalate. Help the Rohingya fleeing threats of genocide. Ask President Obama to demand that Burma stop its attacks on the Rohingya.
Recent Blog Posts