Myth vs. reality of Burma’s reforms


A monk visits a pagoda in Mandalay on May 29, 2012 . The International Monetary Fund said on May 7 that Myanmar could be Asia's next boom economy if the country sticks to its new path of political and economic reforms.



Editors’ note: GlobalPost's style is to use the country’s official name, Myanmar, but the author, Bill Davis, prefers Burma in solidarity with the groups that are pushing for democracy and justice.

BANGKOK, Thailand — The results of April’s election in Burma keep coming in: Recently the US joined the rest of the international community in suspending sanctions against Burma’s government. The US government’s announcement is the latest step in the international community’s warming trend toward the new government.

But it is premature and could be dangerous.

The Burmese government has spent much effort to convince the international community and investors that true democratic change has come to Burma, and it has been successful. Business journals are buzzing about the new “Asian tiger economy” and governments have dropped sanctions.

But the Burmese government should not have to convince the business world of change in Burma; rather, it should focus on convincing its own people. The international community should maintain sanctions until changes have reached all parts of the country.

The government’s changes have been focused on cities and the central part of the country, areas that are most visible to foreigners. Although the government engaged in ceasefire talks with ethnic insurgent groups in the border areas, many of these talks are ongoing and people living in these areas have yet to benefit from democratic changes in Naypidaw. Ethnic minorities make up a third of the country’s population and they are regularly overlooked during the whirlwind tours of foreign diplomats and journalists.

Few international visitors have made it to Kachin State, where a war has been raging for the last year. Abuses against civilians have been ongoing since fighting began there. On the day that the US announced it was suspending sanctions, a Kachin group released a report detailing the Burmese Army’s gang rape of a 48-year-old grandmother and the torture of her 59-year-old neighbor. Last September, I interviewed Kachin civilians who were forced by the Burmese Army to sweep for landmines and carry supplies. Kachin people told me that the Burmese Army fired into civilian houses and threatened to mortar villages.

More from GlobalPost: Big news for Myanmar, but still not the biggest

Abuses are continuing in other ethnic areas too, including those that have had recent ceasefires. Karen, Shan, and Chin states have seen forced labor, extrajudicial killings, religious persecution, and Burmese Army troops pillaging civilian food stores since ceasefires were announced.

Not surprisingly, ethnic political organizations have called for continued sanctions against the Burmese government. Ignoring these calls further marginalizes these groups and gives tacit approval for the Burmese Army to continue its abuses with impunity.

Suspending sanctions and promoting international business investment will do very little to end Burmese military abuses or bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice. Historically, companies working in Burma have partnered with cronies of the regime or the military, and they have frequently been associated with forced labor, forced relocations and land grabbing.

The Kachin Development Networking Group recently highlighted the effects of development in Kachin state and named seven companies associated with human rights abuses. Similar abuses are ongoing, in Arakan and Chin states with a road project, in Eastern Burma with hydroelectric plants, outside of Rangoon with housing developments and across the country with gas and oil pipeline construction and with land confiscation in Tenasserim Division around a port project.

Villagers from Tenasserim Division told me how they signed papers forfeiting their land for the port project, but were not allowed to keep copies of the documents they signed. They complained that prices offered to buy them out were not enough and that many people were forced to move but did not receive any compensation. This is not responsible development.

Given the history of development projects in Burma, international businesses will have a difficult time finding Burmese partners that are sensitive to human rights concerns, and suspending sanctions could result in more abuses. Western businesses risk becoming complicit in human rights violations if there are no strict binding requirements prohibiting such acts.

To build trust with its own citizens, and to truly effect change in the entire country, the government of Burma must halt abuses in ethnic areas and end its 60-year reign of impunity. The government must acknowledge past human rights abuses, ensure justice is upheld, give reparations to those who have suffered abuses, and establish credible and independent institutions that will deter future crimes. The Burmese government has not done any of this on its own. Sanctions were placed on Burma with the goal of stopping human rights violations, and they should remain in place until this happens.

More from GlobalPost: Suu Kyi warns against 'reckless optimism' over Myanmar reforms

The international community should support the transition to democracy, and this includes pushing for an end to human rights violations and justice for victims. Suspending sanctions will not further these goals, and with human rights abuses continuing, it is premature.

Physicians for Human Rights calls on the international community and the US government to closely monitor the situation in Burma, and to be prepared to immediately reinstate sanctions if human rights abuses continue or if progress is not made in reaching other benchmarks.

Bill Davis is the director of the Burma Project at Physicians for Human Rights. He has several positions in non-governmental organizations in Southeast Asia.