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Lord Alton and Benedict Rogers: Yes, there's progress in Burma. But there's a very, very long way to go

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Lord Alton of Liverpool is an independent cross-bench member of the House of Lords. Benedict Rogers is a human rights advocate with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author of ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads’.

 Today, the House of Lords will devote at least an hour to debating Burma. Some may ask why - when the prevailing narrative in the media, among some Government Ministers and among policy-makers would give you a sense that it is “problem solved”. Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi now sits in parliament rather than under house arrest, hundreds of political prisoners have been released, ceasefires have been agreed with most of the country’s ethnic armed groups, space for media, civil society and political actors has increased significantly, trade and investment delegations are pouring in and, in two years’ time, Burma will have elections. Sanctions have been lifted and Burma’s President Thein Sein is travelling the world, feted by world leaders. Isn’t it all solved? Isn’t it time to move on, and focus on the world’s other problems?

There is a prevailing – but premature and misplaced – euphoria about Burma, which is profoundly dangerous. We visited the country together less than three months ago, and the picture we found was far more mixed than the one Burma’s Government and the international community present. Without doubt there are genuine causes for hope, and we should be quick to welcome the changes. That the two of us, known critics of successive regimes in Burma, could visit the country unhindered is a sign that the situation is different. Our meeting with Suu Kyi would have been difficult to imagine a couple of years ago. 

We addressed a gathering of activists, who included some of Burma’s most prominent dissidents (many of whom spent years in jail) Burmese exiles and foreign campaigners in a public meeting in the garden of a restaurant, on the subject of democracy and human rights - something that would have been inconceivable a short time ago. That the restaurant had once been the office of General Aung San, father of Suu Kyi and leader of Burma’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule, made the event even more incongruous. 

All these are signs of a change of atmosphere, which should be encouraged. The international community is right to respond to Thein Sein’s reforms positively. When dictators unclench their fists, they should be met with outstretched hands. However, that should not mean closed eyes and ears to anything negative. Burma is taking some initial, fragile steps on the path to freedom, but there is a very, very long way to go. As Suu Kyi told us, some countries are “going overboard with optimism, making the government think that it is getting everything right".

The reforms mark a change of atmosphere, but do not yet amount to a change of system. Several hundred political prisoners remain in jail. Repressive laws remain in place. The constitution disqualifies Suu Kyi from the presidency and guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats.  Ceasefires with ethnic armed resistance group are welcome but, in substance, they amount to little more than a pause in conflict. They are accompanied by new concerns over land confiscation in the name of “development”, as businesses come into ceasefire areas and take over the land.

Decades of civil war can only end if there is a genuine peace process, involving a political solution. Burma’s ethnic nationalities want federalism, in which they are guaranteed equal rights and a degree of autonomy. Suu Kyi is on record supporting this. Thein Sein should now be urged to end war, reduce the army’s presence in ethnic areas and enter into a serious nationwide dialogue about the political future.

The ethnic nationalities collectively amount to 40 per cent of the population, and inhabit 60 per cent of the land. They live along Burma’s borders, in some of the most resource-rich areas, along major trade routes. It is in the government’s interest, and that of the international community, to find a genuine solution to the conflicts with them, ensuring peace for the country and stability for foreign investment. As part of a serious peace process, Thein Sein must end the Burma Army’s offensive against the Kachin people.

Two years ago, the military launched a new campaign against the Kachin, ending a 17 year ceasefire. In the past two years, over 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced, at least 200 villages burned down and 66 churches destroyed. Last week, talks between the Kachin resistance and the Government resumed, with UN observers, and a preliminary agreement was reached to de-escalate fighting. However, the best that can be said of such a deal is that it is simply a prelude to a ceasefire, and still does not represent the peace process and political dialogue that is needed.

Grave human rights violations continue to be perpetrated, including rape, torture and killings. A recent report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide detailed the story of one Kachin who had been jailed for a year. During his interrogation, he was hung upside down for a day and a night, beaten severely, mutilated with hot knives, and a grenade was shoved in his mouth, his torturers threatening to pull the pin. A Kachin woman whose husband is in jail told how he had been forced to engage in sex with other men, and to kneel on sharp stones, his hands outstretched in the form of a crucifixion. If Burma is really on the path of change, the government must end these abuses, and tackle the culture of impunity that has existed for so long.

The plight of the Muslim Rohingyas needs urgent attention. One of the most marginalised people in the world, their history is disputed, but no one can deny that they have lived in Burma for generations. Yet the government, and many in Burmese society, claim they are all “illegal Bengali immigrants", a view based on years of misinformation and propaganda. The Rohingyas were recognised until the 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of their citizenship and rendered them stateless. Since then, they have faced severe persecution, which exploded last year, resulting in the deaths of at least a thousand and the displacement of at least 130,000. Human Rights Watch published evidence of mass graves, claiming the security forces have been complicit with violence and accused the regime of ethnic cleansing.

Efforts to address misunderstandings about the Rohingyas’ history and origins are needed - if necessary through an independent inquiry into their historical claims and questions over illegal immigration. Reform of the citizenship law to bring it into line with international norms is essential. In the immediate-term, unhindered access for humanitarian aid to all victims of violence and war in Arakan State, central Burma and Kachin State must be a priority.

While we were in Burma, a wider anti-Muslim campaign of hatred and violence was unleashed. We visited one Muslim community in a village near Naypyidaw, three days after it had been attacked. We saw the burned-out madrassah and the desecrated mosque. The local Muslims told us they had lived in that village for 200 years and never previously had a problem.

 “Now there is absolutely no communication with our Buddhist neighbours. We don’t dare greet each other in the street,” they told us. In this village, no one died, but that was only because they all escaped in time. In many other places, Muslims were hacked to death or burned alive, while the security forces stood by and watched.

If Burma’s reforms are to lead to real change, urgent action is needed to address issues of constitutional and legislative reform, and ethnic and religious conflict. Thein Sein’s government must tackle the culture of impunity that prevails, end torture and other grave human rights abuses, ensure swift action by the security forces to protect vulnerable minorities from further violence, bring the instigators of religious hatred and perpetrators of violence to justice and invest in initiatives to promote inter-religious dialogue, understanding and harmony, through public awareness and education. As one step, the government should ensure that in schools, the curriculum for religious studies provides a balanced and fair understanding of the teachings of all religions, not only Buddhism. 

Burma is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. As the Catholic Archbishop of Rangoon Charles Bo said in a personal statement recently, “if the violence we have seen continues, our fragile freedom that is just beginning to emerge could be snatched from our hands and our country could descend into a vicious cycle of hatred, violence and turmoil”. The different stakeholders in Burma’s future must “unclench our fists and work together to rebuild not only the physical structures of our country, but the hearts and minds of our people.” The international community has a responsibility to help in that effort, by offering encouragement where merited, expertise where desired, aid where needed and pressure where justified. The new era of engagement with Burma’s government must not be uncritical, unthinking or unconditional.


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