What lies beneath

Francis Wade

Oct 29, 2009 (DVB), As the most senior level US delegation to visit Burma in decades is soon to touch down, it is worth reminding ourselves of the myriad problems in Burma that Washington needs to address.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the recent US policy shift has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi and the 2,100 political prisoners in Burma; indeed, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon flagged this up in July as the most important obstacle to democracy in the country. Their plight, illuminated by the captivating 64-year-old, is what grabs headlines across the world, but they are merely a taster of Burma's wider ruin.

Many are skeptical as to the effect a shift towards greater dialogue between the generals and Washington will have. Will it be able to tackle entrenched corruption in Burmese society, or draw the junta away from a myopic focus on its military to the pitifully undernourished health and education sectors? Will it address what the US said this week were ongoing restrictions against religious freedom in the country?

The Obama administration has made comparatively little mention of ongoing crises in Burma's remote ethnic regions that lie well beyond the Rangoon-to-Naypyidaw diplomatic corridor, and that underlies the country's fragile state. Low-intensity conflict has steadily eaten away at these regions for decades, with groups sparring with the government for autonomy. A US health academic, Chris Beyrer, testifying in front of the House last week relegated this issue to "the second major cause for concern in Burma today".

The comment would have come as a blow to the millions of ethnic Burmese that for decades have been ousted, just like Suu Kyi, from any part of Burma's political decision-making process. Beyrer cited research that found that more than a quarter of families in Shan state, which borders China, had been forcibly relocated by government troops in the past year, while 24 percent had one family member taken by the army for forced labour.

Since independence in 1948, successive military governments dominated by the majority Burman population have enacted a kind of racial supremacy, and thus meted out a particularly violent brand of the minority treatment to all other ethnic groups. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which ostensibly represents the estimated six million Burmese Shan, came one place behind Suu Kyi's party in the 1990 elections. Its leader, Khun Htun Oo, was sentenced in 1995 to 93 years imprisonment on defamation charges, but the subject of his release remains conspicuously absent from any of the stated US goals for the country.

Burma's fragile border regions are another cause for concern, nearly all of which have at one point or another in recent months been the site of major flare-ups. In June, 5,000 refugees poured across the border from Karen state into Thailand following fighting between government troops and the ethnic Karen National Union (KNU). In August and September, an exodus of some 37,000 ethnic Shan fled into China after troops launched an offensive against an ethnic Kokang army. The Muslim Rohingya community in eastern Burma continues to be pushed back and forth across the border between Bangladesh, with neither country wanting the impoverished and persecuted minority.

If the US had hoped to look for assistance from Burma's regional neighbours, it had better think again. While Thailand, as head of the regional bloc, has perhaps made the biggest strides in recent months towards pressuring the regime, its lip-service is less than convincing. Last week it oversaw the launch of the region's first human rights body which, with no punitive powers, appears to be little more than a flimsy platform for further soft condemnation.

Thailand's indifference to the crisis is all the more perplexing given that it criticised the fighting near the border in June for its regional ramifications. Beyrer last week pointed out that one medical clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot had treated some 20,000 Burmese nationals in the past year, many of whom had suffered as a result of the fighting. These were people unable to find adequate treatment their own country, which spends around $US0.70 per person each year on healthcare. It's a statistic that alone provides ample evidence of the mountain the US has to climb when faced with a government that channels some 40 percent of its budget into the military, and was accused recently of siphoning $US9 billion out of state funds into private Singaporean banks.

Powerful symbolic rhetoric is what won Obama office, but it is yet to be seen whether that can translate into rounded, pragmatic diplomacy. The mass of issues that don't make headlines need to be factored into the engagement process; this is what Burma needs, and Suu Kyi's place at the top of the priority list, elevated way beyond the multitude of Burma's other pressing crises, may well be a sign of the new US administration's shortcomings.

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