Burma: A long, long walk to national reconciliation

By Khadija Patel 9 July 2012

Authorities in Burma temporarily detained more than 20 student activists ahead of Saturday’s 50th anniversary of a brutal military crackdown on students. The activists were all released within a day, but their detention is just the latest setback to Burma’s fragile path towards national reconciliation. By KHADIJA PATEL.

To date, political change in Burma has been a personality-driven process, rather than an institutional one. Even from afar, our understanding of Burmese politics is coloured by Aung San Suu Kyi. With good reason, of course. She has been an inimitable force for good, inspiring comparisons to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. And like Mandela, she shuns the political sainthood offered to her by the rest of the world, sidestepping references to the sacrifices she has made (including 15 years under house arrest) and preaching non-violence and freedom from fear. 

In August 2000, in an American TV interview, she said, “It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a choice. If you choose to do something, then you shouldn’t say it’s a sacrifice, because nobody forced to you do it.” 

It is understandable, then, that hers is a personality difficult to resist, and that Burma’s movement towards democracy has taken advantage of this force of personality. 

The decision to free Suu Kyi, and the subsequent decision to allow her to contest a seat in parliamentary elections, were crucial to persuading the international community that Burma might be serious about political reform after all. As previously pointed out by my colleague Rebecca Davis, Suu Kyi’s biographer Peter Popham believes President Thein Sein to be “scrupulously honest”, but also shrewd in his recognition that the quickest way to improve relations with the West was to improve the treatment of Suu Kyi, who was the country’s most emblematic pro-democracy figure. 

As a new session of parliament opens on Monday, Burma continues on the road towards the most profound change of all, namely the opening up of the country to foreign business and investment through a series of keystone legislative reforms. Already business delegations have thronged to Burma, alive to the lure of the fabled economic opportunity that lay dormant for so long. 

Yet the question now is to what extent that support, driven in part by the long-standing struggle between the West and China, may become a hindrance to Burma’s attempts to actually solve its many problems. In the clamour to cheer along democracy in Burma, the enthusiasm of Western backers may lead the world to turn a blind (or, at least, excessively indulgent eye) to grave political problems that continue to ail the country.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok last month, Suu Kyi herself cautioned against “reckless optimism” in the political reform process. As she urged investors to make business decisions that would enhance the lives of ordinary Burmese people, she made clear that she believed the army was behind the recent reforms and urged the international community to remain sceptical. Investment in Burma was to be encouraged, she said, but she also warned that a proper legal framework and independent judiciary was not yet in place.

It’s little surprise, then, that according to the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi said the students’ detention this weekend was yet another reminder that continued reform in Burma should not be taken for granted. In a statement released by the Burma Independence Advocates, a London-based group working for the restoration of democratic values in Burma, distrust in these reforms by the Burmese is clearly articulated. “All these oppressive measures of [the] Thein Sein regime reveal its true colours of military dictatorship. This series of incidents points out that [the] Thein Sein regime is deceiving the people of Burma and the whole world that they are committed for further democratic reforms. It is doubtful whether the recent violence in Arakan State and these events were orchestrated by the regime for the return of military rule.”

Burma, despite the optimism of some, is still stubbornly at war with itself. And this war is a complex, interwoven set of conflicts that run deep into the fabric of Burmese society. Speaking to the BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher (he of “bloody agent” fame), a veteran Human Rights Watch researcher lost count of the number of armed groups doing battle in Burma. “Six, seven… hold on, probably a few more than that,” David Mathieson told Fisher. “The Karen, the Karenni, the Shan, the Kachin, the Chin, the United Wa State Army, the Mon, the Mongla… have I forgotten anyone?”

And even as old conflicts refuse to die, new ones are forming just as quickly. 

Over the years, violence in the outlying provinces has been seen as the oppression of ethnic minorities by the military, but last month an outbreak of unrest in Rakhine State exposed a deep sectarian divide averse to financial reforms. More than 100 people are thought to have been killed after a breakdown in relations between the region’s Buddhist and Muslim communities. A state of emergency now exists in Rakhine State, The Diplomat magazine says: “The Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) is now on hand to try to restore order. It is unclear which other group might have been able to fulfil this role, though the nature of Burma’s army has raised inevitable concerns that it might do more harm than good.”

Already Human Rights Watch alleged on Friday that some within Myanmar’s security forces had carried out “mass round-ups” and other abuses on Muslim communities.

“While the Burmese army has largely contained the sectarian violence, abuses by security forces against Rohingya communities appear to be on the upsurge in recent weeks,” HRW said.

“The mass arrests ongoing in northern Arakan [Rakhine] state seem to be discriminatory, as the authorities in these townships do not appear to be investigating or apprehending Arakan suspected of criminal offences.”

In the meantime, the military is still locked into operations in Kachin State, where it has escalated its year-long battle with the Kachin Independence Army. Although the Thein Sein government has, in policy at least, adopted a more concillatory approach to the country’s minorities, the effects are not yet palpable. 

Human Rights Watch sums up the current situation in Burma as follows: “Burma showed signs of change in 2011, but the government still failed to seriously address the dire human rights situation in the country. The new government, comprised mostly of former generals, has released hundreds of political prisoners, enacted laws on forming trade unions and freedom of assembly, eased official media censorship, and amended laws enabling the opposition National League for Democracy to register as a political party. However, ethnic conflict has escalated, and the Burmese military continues to commit abuses against civilians such as forced labor, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, the use of ‘human shields’, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.”

In Burma, marrying conviction to practicality is proving an insurmountable task. Whatever reforms have been made remain in the cult of personalities, while the institutions that have the power to guarantee these reforms have yet to see any change. DM

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