The world is watching as Burma’s Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi participates in the country’s April 1 parliamentary elections. What makes these elections so significant is that they might actually be the first free and fair elections in a country that has been governed by a military dictatorship for the last two and a half decades. But at the same time human rights abuses continue in ethnic minority areas of Burma, calling into question the government’s true commitment to reform.
The elections have been welcomed by Western nations and have led to partial lifting of sanctions. While there is hope in the short term, these reforms are only one step in a much deeper process that is needed for the international community to fully embrace the nation.
In recent months, the government has expressed new commitments to political, social and economic reform. The release of hundreds of political prisoners, the participation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and that of its pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the April elections, and the fact that the Burmese regime has held preliminary ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups are signs that have been welcomed by Western nations.
Yet this progress is also reversible. 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 brutal counter-insurgency campaigns against ethnic minorities in the eastern states, leading to widespread civilian deaths. In 1988, a junta hijacked democratic elections, cracking down on pro-democracy protestors and imprisoning more than 2,200 activists and held Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 out of the last 25 years.
Large areas of Burma that are home to minority ethnic groups, including the Karen, Kachin and Shan, are not at peace and its people are the victims of ongoing human rights abuses. In Kachin State, over 75,000 people have been displaced in the last nine months as fighting between the army and Kachin fighters. Entire villages have been burned and humanitarian aid has been prevented from reaching people in need.
Ceasefire talks with the ethnic groups are still tentative and are in the beginning stages. It is also unclear whether the reforms of President Thein Sein are supported by the large army which wields the real power in Burma.
According to groups based on the Burmese border, military attacks in Karen and Kachin states have taken place as recently as the past two weeks. On March 4, a 22 year old woman was raped by a Burma army soldier in Karen state. On March 15, fifty troops from a Burma army division fired mortars into a camp in Kachin state. Violent attacks continue in other ethnic minority regions as well.
These recent attacks should convince the international community that the Burmese regime must demonstrate more concrete improvements before it is rewarded with the lifting of sanctions.
While celebrating the signs of progress after decades of stalemate, the international community must resist the urge to wholeheartedly embrace the regime. It should instead exercise patience and caution. Lifting sanctions too soon could undermine incentives for deeper and more fundamental reforms in Burma.
At United to End Genocide, we will be watching closely not only what happens in the April 1 by-elections in Rangoon, but what happens in all the many ethnic minority regions where, tragically, people have suffered mass atrocities at the hands of the Burmese military for decades.