It goes without saying that there are winners and losers in Burma, a country ridden with decades-long civil wars and egregious human rights abuses under the iron-fist rule of the military junta. Under such conditions, United States policy towards Burma was guided by concerns for the majority of civilians who suffered greatly.
Despite these conditions persisting today, from atrocious anti-democratic laws to heinous war crimes, one sweeping by-election in April 2012 changed the game for Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament and the US hasn’t looked back since.
On Monday, President Thein Sein, former junta leader turned President, will meet with President Obama in Washington DC. President Obama’s invitation demonstrates the dismal backsliding the US has taken with its Burma policy over the last year leading up to this moment.
What has taken place is a dramatic shift in US-Burma policy. Rather than a measured action-for-action policy, an encourage-the-reformers-only policy has taken its place. Why? An opportunity for fiscal, capital gains. Abandoning stipulations that all political prisoners be released immediately and unconditionally, ending all human rights abuses and genuine engagement through dialogue between military, democratic opposition and ethnic minorities for the sake of national reconciliation, the international gold rush opened by the NLD-swept by-elections determined that the US throw in the towel and join the race for investment in Burma.
In March 2013, US Campaign for Burma (USCB) travelled to Burma for three weeks, meeting with Rangoon-based civil society and ethnic political leaders, Thai-Burmese border based organisations and visiting IDPs and Kachin leaders in KIA territory in Kachin state. It became quite clear that there has been a significant shift in Burma as well, but make no mistake in believing it is positive, despite what the Obama administration would have you believe.
Where once the international community stood for the voiceless in Burma, political players are now selling out for investment, and because of this, ethnic minorities, civil society groups and farmers now feel abandoned and betrayed. Nearly 100,000 Kachin IDPs have yet to receive a penny in aid from the US. The ongoing war in Kachin state and the renewed conflict in Shan state demonstrate just how far the “ceasefire agreements” extend.
Land grabs in the name of investment that the US has cheerfully sold out for leave thousands with no place to go and no income to be made. Hundreds of new, unaccounted political prisoners jailed and tortured under ridiculous language of “unlawful association” and ethnic minorities, more notably of late the Rohingya Muslims, subject to ethnic cleansing, continue to succumb to the atrocious human rights abuses that for so long made Burma notorious.
These persisting abuses include: rape and sexual violence as a mechanism of war, forced labor, use of child soldiers, land grabbing without compensation, extrajudicial killings, murder, disappearances, impunity, labor and sex trafficking, and torture.
For the few Burmese civilians not falling under these categories though, international engagement on a surface level is invited because, like all countries emerging from brutal, repressive rule, opportunities to improve livelihoods and engage internationally are desired. Not only is the incredible disparity between the military-led government and Burma’s civilian population maintained, but now there is an immense distinction between civilians in Burma – those who can afford to turn a blind eye to the atrocities, and those who simply cannot escape them.
Clearly little reform was needed to convince the international community that Burma deserves to be welcomed into the global economy with open arms. One victorious by-election, a few quick-fixes to the government, a couple of commissioned committees handing out disgustingly slanted views, most recently the Latpadaung crackdown and Arakan state violence reports, and mere face-time peace talks between Aung Min and armed ethnic groups is enough for the US to drop nearly all sanctions, President Obama to visit Burma in November 2012, and now Thein Sein to visit the White House.
The Burmese government has been shrewd with their public rhetoric in making the world believe Burma is on the path toward freedom and democracy for all. We saw first-hand that not only has nothing changed for many, but in fact getting much worse for ethnic minorities.
The Obama administration is ignoring human rights while courting investment opportunities and political favour. This strategy strongly favours economic benefits for the military and their crony partners, while farmers lose their land and human rights abuses continue unabated.
Brianna Oliver is the communications & development coordinator at US Campaign for Burma
-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy