The following was originally posted on The Hill’s Congress Blog.
Senator Webb, perennially oblivious to the brutality of the Burmese military government, has always opposed United States economic sanctions on the junta. Despite his attempts to gut them, U.S. sanctions were not only maintained but strengthened and are beginning to produce important results.
Now, in a letter to Secretary of State Clinton, Senator Webb is attempting to use the progress made in the April 1 elections as a pretext for repeating his call. In other words, he was first against them because they were supposedly not working and now he is against them because they are. This, despite clear evidence that the regime continues to make war on many of its citizens, recently attacking and killing ethnic minorities in Kachin State.
It’s certainly promising that some advances toward a more democratic Burma have been made. This progress should be encouraged. However, there is so much yet to be accomplished and we must recognize that this is the beginning of the road, not the end. The small steps forward on democracy can easily be undone and there are still ongoing and widespread atrocities being perpetrated by the army in Burma’s ethnic national states.
I just returned from one such state, Kachin, where I witnessed the escalation of Burmese troops and spoke with families fleeing the army’s attacks. The situation there continues to worsen. I met people like Nang Bauk, whose village had been attacked and husband captured, and the family of an elderly man who had been shot by the army while tending to his crops.
Recent reports indicate that 2,000 troops had moved in on the town of Laiza, which is home to thousands of displaced people, sparking fears that a major assault is imminent. Is this the type of behavior that should be encouraged?
Being cautious when easing restrictions on the Burmese regime isn’t just about maintaining consequences for ongoing bad behavior. It’s recognizing that years of pressure have encouraged a desire for progress. We must exercise prudence in removing this pressure by gradually rolling back sanctions in exchange for verifiable changes on the ground. The United States should also be clear about what it considers to be the benchmarks of progress.
As a starting point, the U.S. should require that the Burmese government end gross violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law; enter meaningful collective nationwide negotiations that lead to a political settlement with ethnic national groups; release all political prisoners and repeal laws that prohibit basic freedom including freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; implement constitutional changes that enable a civilian government to hold the military accountable; and establish the rule of law, including the creation of an independent judiciary.
What many people don’t know is that Burma is home to some of the longest running conflicts in the world. It has the highest number of child soldiers. There are decades of well-documented cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly against Burma’s ethnic national population. It’s going to take time and effort to address these challenges.
Even worse than rewarding the regime prematurely by rolling back sanctions, U.S. companies would actually be in a position to further exacerbate atrocities by rushing into Burma prematurely. At this point, the Burmese regime and its cronies still control the most lucrative sectors of the economy—including natural gas, gems, timber and mining—exploiting Burma’s natural resources at the expense of the people. These men with blood on their hands are exact same people that U.S. companies will be dealing with as they rush to invest.
In Kachin State—home to major dam projects and adjacent to the new Shwe oil and natural gas pipeline project—Chinese investment is fueling the current conflict. With an eye to their economic interests, the Burmese army broke a 17-year ceasefire when they launched a military offensive last June. In less than a year, tens of thousands have been displaced from the homes because of the Burmese army’s attacks.
The attacks by the army in Kachin underscore two important points: first, the ongoing need for political agreements between the central government and each of Burma’s ethnic national groups and second, the Burmese army is still willing to employ the same brutal tactics today to target minorities that it has for decades.
The United States has led the international community in support of peace, human rights and democracy in Burma for years. Burma is at the beginning of a crossroads and U.S. leadership is being tested. By hastily removing sanctions the risk of reinforcing and exacerbating rights violations is great. By exercising patience and prudence, the U.S. can support real progress that lasts.