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International praise and grassroots realities

President Thein Sein is being honoured by the International Crisis Centre Group (ICCG) at its annual “In Pursuit of Peace, Prosperity and the Presidency Award” dinner to be held in New York on 22 April 2013. This award is given to recognise and “celebrate inspirational figures whose visionary leadership has transformed the lives of millions and brought forth the promise of a world free of conflict”.

According to ICCG, Burma is being rewarded for “it’s remarkable and unprecedented set of reforms since President Thein Sein’s government took over in March 2011, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, liberating the press and promoting dialogue with the main opposition party”.

Consistent praise of Burma’s current leadership means turning away from the truth. It is amazing how forgetting enables the truth to be ignored. The 2008 Constitution was enforced in Burma, led by the current President, to ensure nothing would change and the military would still be in control following the transition from military to ‘civilian’ rule.

President Thein Sein first started receiving major accolades from the international community for beginning a dialogue with the Nobel laureate after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in 2010. But does a few meetings between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi constitute a dialogue?

After failing to kill Suu Kyi in 2003 at Depayin and amid strong international support for Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the military learned that it would benefit them to have her as an ally. After the military annulled the 1990 elections that saw the NLD win in a landslide, President Thein Sein allowed Suu Kyi and the NLD to participated in the by-elections were 45 seats in parliament were contested in April.

Now the military has begun ruling with a golden touch after handing over a small portion of the parliament’s seats. Under the guise of development, Burma’s resources are being sold off to the highest bidder. Foreign investors can now lease land for a period of 50 years with two 10 year extensions. In ‘undeveloped and remote’ areas in Burma, the government will allow foreign investors to hold even longer leases.

This seals away swathes of land and ecosystems for generations of farmers and residents – seriously jeopardising their right to food and a secure livelihood. Burma’s President has proven he’s willing and eager to sell out its residents for personal gain and the benefit of his friends’ benefits. Is this the way to feed the poor of Burma?  

The military and maintaining power

The Constitution is not a citizen document, rather it allows the military to continue to rule and financially benefit from more international investment.

Political prisoners, which the government stated did not exist, were released during several presidential amnesties that often coincided with significant events, including the visits of international figures to Burma. U Myint Aye, a prominent human rights defender in Burma, was released when President Obama visited Burma in November.

However, none of the country’s draconian laws have been removed or changed, which are used to entrap individuals who continue to speak truth in Burma. Those released during the presidential amnesties can be thrown back into prison if they offend the government. There has been no unconditional release of political dissidents. There is no compensation for unfair prison time. There is no medical treatment for the years of prison and torture political prisoners were forced to endure. There is no independent judiciary.

[pullquote]”None of the country’s draconian laws have been removed or changed” [/pullquote]

Recently, many individuals have been arrested in Burma. Among those arrested are leaders of demonstrations against the Letpadaung Mountain copper mining project in northern Burma. In July 2012, villagers in Letpadaung took action against the expansion of the mine. People from around Burma came to offer their support.

The mine, a joint venture between a Burmese military-owned group and a Chinese company, was displacing local villagers and polluting the environment. By the end of November, protests against the mine’s expansion had spread to cities around Burma. On 29 November, police assaulted the protesters camped near the mine site, which left dozens of monks and other citizens hospitalised.

In November, Rangoon police arrested six leaders of one rally supporting the anti-mine expansion protests. Six people were charged with disrupting public tranquillity and are now in prison. Earlier this month, four shopkeepers in Kachin state were sent to prison for filming a demonstration over the relocation of a marketplace. On 1 December, about fifteen police in Rangoon went to the home of U Gambira to arrest the former Buddhist monk for entering a monastery earlier in the year that authorities had closed following the monk-led protests in 2007.

Instead of praising President Thein Sein, the ICCG and foreign leaders should encourage him to suspend large scale land transactions, demand that he stop oppressing and criminalising people who are defending their land, and release all detained political prisoners.

The amnesia that seems to be affecting some in the international community cannot continue. Truth will emerge. It seems ironic that as the rest of the world praises the leader of Burma, the Burmese people from all walks of life continue to be deprived of their basic rights. The people are revolting in mass demonstrations. They are fighting for their lives, their land, their livelihood and their voice in government.

The former members of the State Peace and Development Council, the authors of the 2008 Constitution, ensured support for military and have failed to address the severe human rights violations committed by the armed forces in the past.

In 2006, Paulo Sergio Pinheirio reported to the UN General Assembly that sexual violence, forced labour, and child soldiering had been “widespread and systematic over the last decade so as to suggest they are not simply isolated acts of individual misconduct of middle or low rank officers but rather the result of the upholding of a system under which individuals and groups have been allowed to breach the law and human rights without being held to account”.

These crimes fall under the International Criminal Court’s Statute; however, the government of Burma is unwilling to prosecute such crimes.

International groups now focus on supporting the very men who committed these crimes. Aung San Suu Kyi states that no person will be tried for their past acts. She recommends reconciliation. How can there be reconciliation with the men who perpetrated crimes against humanity still in power?

Why is the world so vulnerable to being seduced by socio-political doctrines and a readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of some ‘potential’ peace? Why are so many citizens of Burma being denied the support they need now to create a country based on democratic principles? Why is there not rage against the murderous powers of injustice being committed in Burma? Why after decades of protest by truth seekers in Burma is there not support for the defenders of human freedoms?

Nancy Hudson-Rodd PhD, human geographer, former director of the Centre for Development Studies, honorary research fellow, Edith Cowan University, has conducted research in Burma for the past decade on the confiscation of farmers’ land by the military regime.

-The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.


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