Talk is Cheap: It Didn’t Help the Kachin

The White House has announced President Obama will travel to Burma on November 18th, the first ever US President to visit Burma.  This impending visit has been preceded by a number of unprecedented gifts to Burma’s rulers thus far: the visit of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton late last year, and the lifting of financial, investment and import sanctions.  Things are looking good for Burma’s rulers so far, therefore things must be good in Burma, right?

Not so fast.  While the U.S. Administration would love to paint a positive picture of Burma for Obama’s visit, where he is said to be meeting with President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi, and Rangoon-based civil society, Burma’s human rights and power structure have a severely long way to go before we can deem the country “democratic.”

Human rights violations, political prisoners, forced displacement due to unjustifiable land grabbing, ongoing armed conflict (particularly in Kachin and Shan states) ethnic cleansing in Arakan/Rakhine state, and denial of humanitarian access are just some of the extremely disconcerting human rights concerns people are currently coping with.

Today, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council Samantha Power released a promising blog post titled ‘Supporting Human Rights in Burma,’ which details their awareness and attention towards the daunting human rights problems Burma still faces.  But these are words without corresponding action.  President Obama’s historic trip to Burma will be viewed as a confirmation of positive developments and an endorsement of Burma’s leaders, both civilian and military, not condemnation of ongoing human rights atrocities or concern for their safety and wellbeing.  Why?

You’ve heard about it, you’ve read about it: the communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma this summer.  Last month, violence erupted again.  Only this time, it was not communal violence.  Rohingya communities were specifically targeted leaving villages razed, tens of thousands displaced, and some fleeing the violence by boat, only to drown out at sea.  Doctors Without Borders teams and other humanitarian aid workers are being restricted from areas where refugees are located, effectively preventing lifesaving medical treatment from reaching those in desperate need.  Humanitarian aid is sparse and overwhelmed camps do not have the means to provide food, water, shelter, and supplies.

International political figures, and Burma’s own Aung San Suu Kyi, have called for the Burmese military to again calm the situation in Arakan (Rakhine) state.  Since when have we relied on the Burmese military to actually prevent violent situations and promote peacekeeping?  What we’ve really seen happen is that they’re not there to protect, they’re there to control. And their tactics for controlling the local population are to shoot people. We get reports from the Rakhine that they’re being shot at by the Burmese military, you’re hearing reports from the Rohingya that they’re being shot at by the Burmese military. Instead of being a part of the solution, what really the military is doing is adding another layer of actors that are just contributing to the present problem.

What Burma and Arakan/Rakhine state need most are international monitors and peacekeepers.  International monitors are the only objective and viable option to protect civilians in Arakan/Rakhine state.  Deep-rooted and overwhelming racism without adequate legal protections are additional impediments to relying on domestic Burmese solutions for protecting and aiding the vulnerable Rohingya population.  Under these circumstances, the responsibility to protect falls on the international community.

President Obama must recognize the limitations of his engagement policy and pressure President Thein Sein to accept international peacekeepers.  One only need look at the Kachin to underline the failings of the U.S. Administration’s engagement-only policy.  For 18 months the Burmese Army has been attacking the Kachin in Northeast Burma.   Roughly 100,000 Kachin have been displaced as result of the conflict.  Most of them have been struggling to survive in internally displaced camps close to the China border.  The Burmese military has refused to allow humanitarian aid workers to access these refugees, on all but a few occasions.  The United States has continually asked for humanitarian access to the displaced with little to no success.  18 months of engagement has not worked while the country’s most vulnerable continue to suffer and die from malnutrition and treatable diseases.

It is time President Obama stop relying on engagement and act for the most oppressed and vulnerable people in Burma. We urge President Barack Obama to not only meet with Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, which we know will bring positive reinforcement to Burma’s movement towards democracy, but to also meet with General Min Aung Hlaing, demonstrate solidarity by visiting still-imprisoned political prisoners, visit refugees in Kachin and Arakan/Rakhine states to understand their plight, and meet with political parties and ethnic parties, such as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), to develop a global view of the complexity that is Burma.


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