This week has seen the Thein Sein government awarded for their tentative steps towards a democratic Burma. Many countries such as the UK, Norway, Australia, and the US have announced an easing of sanctions while the EU will make a decision today although it seems a forgone conclusion that they will lift many sanctions. While these steps should be rewarded it must be noted that the fundamental conditions for which the sanctions were imposed in the first place remain and the steps taken by the government are tiny.
Catherine Ashton, EU Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security identified the three key areas in which EU policy towards sanctions against Burma will hinge on: national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners, and resolving ethnic conflict. If we take these three in turn, it is evident that these issues have not been resolved.
As for the national reconciliation process, by-elections in which less than 7% of seats are available does not legitimize a Parliament still dominated by the military backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, that came into office through a undemocratic, military-drafted constitution and the sham 2010 elections. Not only is the number of seats won by the NLD insignificant, but the by-elections were littered with irregularities, intimidation and vote-rigging.
Secondly, the release of political prisoners. There have been a number of high profile releases of political prisoners since Thein Sein took office, in particular on January 13. It is important to note that these releases weren’t unconditional, and that there remain around 1,000 languishing in Burma’s prisons, often in remote locations far from their families where their basic rights are deprived. So far the Thein Sein government refuses to allow an independent body to verify the exact number of political prisoners and document the conditions they endure. Neither has it taken any steps to repeal the repressive laws that criminalize freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Thirdly, resolving ethnic conflict. While there have been tentative ceasefires with some ethnic groups, the Burma Army continues to launch offensives against ethnic armed groups. At least 14 clashes have been reported with the Shan State Army (South), as well as attacks on the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Shan State Army (North). In the first two weeks of April alone, the Kachin Independence Organization reported 64 Burma Army attacks against Kachin Independence Army frontline posts and the movement of heavy artillery into the area around their Laiza headquarters, suggesting that further fighting is likely despite Thein Sein ordering the Army to halt offensives.
It is clear that the conditions that Catherine Ashton has laid out, and which are supported by many in the international community, are still being compromised while other fundamental issues that need to be addressed for a transition to democracy to be successful, such as legal reforms and justice for the victims are still not being tackled. There is a long way to go for a genuine, functioning democracy whereby the holders of power are accountable to the people and rule of law is established. It seems, however, that this being overlooked in favour of lifting sanctions, thus facilitating investment. This motivation is not exactly made secret either. Catherine Ashton will “encourage European companies to look for opportunities in Burma.” Burma does have huge investment opportunities, but these should not be explored at the expense of human rights and the well-being of the people of Burma.
One of the main risks in lifting too many sanctions is the loss of leverage that the international community has over the reform process. It is obvious that the lifting of sanctions is something that the Thein Sein government is striving for but the by-elections results should not be the litmus test for substantive change in Burma. It is merely a small step and while there remains an absence of legal reform, on-going armed conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic areas, and the existence of a significant number of political prisoners, the results of the by-elections does not represent meaningful change. Until such conditions are resolved and the people of Burma can feel a sense of justice and ownership of the reform process, the lifting of significant sanctions is a premature policy. Echoing this, the European Council for Foreign Relations in a recently released report advocates for “a gradual approach” as this “would demonstrate support for the situation on the ground and for the promising steps already taken, and make clear that the key to full normalisation will be verifiable and irreversible reforms rather than mere promises of them.”
It is vital that a wholesale lifting of sanctions does not scupper the democracy movement. Recent reforms are still superficial in terms of political will and substance, and are not irreversible. If the government is rewarded too richly this will facilitate a development process that lacks transparency, accountability and the participation of the people of Burma and likely to exacerbate existing problems, especially for non-Burman ethnic communities.
Kachin Independence Organization reports troop and ammunitions buildup by the Burma Army, suggesting an upcoming assault on their headquarters in Laiza; Kachin Independence Army launches offensives in Lashio township against Manpang People’s Militia Force, killing at least four soldiers
Tokyo Stock Exchange and Daiwa Securities Group will help set up a stock market in Burma and Japan agrees to forgive 303.5 billion yen (US$3.7 billion) in loans and interest to Burma and vows to resume support and aid for infrastructure during Thein Sein’s visit
On a trip to Burma, British Prime Minister David Cameron calls for sanctions to be suspended not lifted; EU Foreign Affairs Representative Catherine Ashton says EU will lift sanctions, decision to be made today
US Senator Jim Webb, on a visit to Burma, says trade sanctions should be lifted “as quickly as possible” and the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizes financial transactions for not-for-profit projects and programs in areas such as good governance, health, education and sport
Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, says President Thein Sein and 260 civilian officials would no longer be subject to financial restrictions and travel bans but sanctions would remain in place against about 130 military officials
Villagers in Namtu, northern Shan State, file a complaint to local authorities and petition the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) over destruction of their farmland by China’s gas pipeline construction; consequently the SNDP sends a letter to President Thein Sein asking him to carefully consider before approving the creation of a development zone in the area
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This post is in: Weekly Highlights