Away from the Burma fanfare, a harsh reality persists

Despite the current dialogue of change that is increasingly prevalent in media reports and government statements on the situation inside Burma since the November 2010 election, villagers in eastern Burma continue to document abuses and articulate concerns that are consistent with patterns identified over 20 years of human rights documentation by villagers working with our organisation.

Over the past 12 months, villagers from eastern Burma trained to monitor human rights conditions in their communities gathered more than 1,270 oral testimonies, collections of images and written documentation of abuses. This testimony details serious human rights abuses, all occurring in the past 12 months, across rural areas in four of Burma’s 14 states and regions: Karen and Mon states and Pegu and Tenasserim regions.

Any external assessment of current developments in Burma must heed this testimony, and take note of the patterns of abuse raised across a wide geographic area. Local people are best placed to understand the threats that they continue to face, and to gauge the degree to which these threats affect their own needs and priorities. Their testimony, then, should function as an indictment of any attempt to assess changes since the election that excludes the voices of rural people in ethnic areas.

Abuses documented by villagers in the last 12 months related directly to armed conflict; civilians were arbitrarily detained, violently abused and summarily executed while whole communities were attacked, placed at risk by landmines or subjected to stringent restrictions on movement, trade and access to humanitarian materials.

Abuses were not, however, only related to armed conflict, and viewing the current human rights situation in eastern Burma only through the narrow lens of the horrors of war distorts the reality of the situation and ignores the devastating effects of ingrained abusive practices. Explicit or implicit threats of violence, and past and recent experiences with violent abuse, served as potent reminders when both state and non-state actors’ attempted to secure control over, and extract, communities’ resources. Since November 2010, villagers described abuses including forced labour and arbitrary taxation, the unilateral implementation of development and natural resource extraction projects without local input or accountability, and the confiscation or destruction of land without consent and with inadequate or no compensation. These abuses, while individually less sensational, are nonetheless devastating for rural livelihoods and communities, particularly when understood in the context of their cumulative effects.

In the face of this abuse, villagers continue to employ a variety of strategies to address their human rights concerns. In some villages, community leaders engage soldiers, potentially risking their lives to negotiate even small change, such as the relaxation of movement restrictions or reductions in forced labour. In other contexts, communities feel their best option is to avoid soldiers entirely, sometimes abandoning their homes and seeking safety at hiding sites in remote upland areas.

Villagers seeking to address ongoing abuse have a limited range of options, however, and nothing that has occurred over the last 12 months has presented new ones; the obstacles for communities seeking to address human rights concerns are real, and violent. In a context where villagers have only rarely, or never, seen a soldier punished and where no legal or formal pathways exist for challenging, seeking protection from, or redress for abuse, even victims with no specific past experience of violence are likely to read a credible implicit threat into restrictive and exploitative demands. These concerns function to limit the practical options with which civilians can seek to address their human rights concerns, particularly via approaches that entail engagement with state and military authorities.

It is precisely because communities in eastern Burma continue to face these threats, and because only they can assess the probability of such threats resulting in violence, that their capacity to determine their own human rights concerns, and the ways in which these threats impact their lives and priorities, should be recognised and heeded. Any external assessments that ignore input from the most knowledgeable and engaged stakeholders – who stand to lose the most from inaccurate conclusions drawn without their participation – risk mistaking short-term signs of change for a material alteration of the dynamics of abuse, and place disproportionate emphasis on recent events, at the expense of understanding the way past and continuing abuse impacts the future for communities in eastern Burma.

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