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Where is the Benefit for the People of Burma?

By Burma Partnership  •  October 14, 2013

Thein Sein and Sultan of Brunei 10 Oct 2013 by Vincent Thian APThe international community’s praising of the Burma government continues amid serious problems in the country. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commended Burma’s “unprecedented reform” as President Thein Sein accepted the long-awaited ASEAN helm on 10 October in Brunei, an opportunity the country’s leaders were forced to give up in 2006 because of the dire human rights situation at the time.

Despite the ongoing serious violations of fundamental human rights throughout Burma, ASEAN made the decision of granting Burma the chairmanship in 2011. The grouping of ASEAN itself is shaky and suffering from a big gap in the level of democratization among its member states. ASEAN is also quickly approaching its 2015 deadline for economic integration. Handing the chair in this very important time to a member state in transition can create opportunities for the region as Burma reengages with the West, but on the other hand, the decision is also risky, especially when it entails a chair who will predictably be influenced by China, at least on the matter of the disputed South China Sea.

As usual before international forums, a batch of 56 political prisoners was released ahead of President Thein Sein’s visit to Brunei. The government continues to play the trading game very well, using political prisoners as bargaining chips. The international community, including the ASEAN, has fallen for it too easily. The government gets its legitimacy; the international community gets its investment deals. The people of Burma are the only ones losing out.

The Burma government has been awarded with almost everything it has asked for. Restrictions on Burma, including economic sanctions have been mostly removed. The EU is drafting a watered-down UN General Assembly resolution on Burma and the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country is becoming increasingly undermined, with some nations actively campaigning against its renewal. The legitimacy of 2008 Constitution and flawed 2010 elections cannot be questioned anymore after the President was reportedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Price and granted the ASEAN chairmanship. This approach by international community is a gamble; it has given away all its carrots and is left with few sticks. One should question at whose expense?

The government has made improvements in the investment climate, just enough to entice investors. Figures of investments in Burma have skyrocketed. Big brands aren’t wasting time to rush in. Neighboring countries haven’t failed to take advantage of their friendship even if it means dealing exclusively with the Burma Army. Meanwhile, little attention is paid to the people who are being affected by these investments. Burma Partnership’s recent documentary film “Guns, Briefcases and Inequality” shows how investments in Kachin State have proven that the risks and costs of untimely and irresponsible investment are too high for the people.

The people themselves haven’t been rewarded with anything promising for their decades-long struggle for democracy and human rights, although they might feel they have. A large number of political prisoners have been released, but most under Article 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which can put them back in jail for their remaining sentence at any time. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 133 political prisoners remain behind bars, including dozens who have been arrested in the last year, and 232 are currently facing trials.

There has been progress in peace negotiations between the government’s Union Peace Working Committee and many armed ethnic groups, in spite of being a very flawed process. There are also serious doubts about the political will of the government, especially the commitment of the Burma Army to lasting peace and the ability of the Union Peace Working Committee to negotiate on the Army’s behalf. Meanwhile, the Kachin Independence Army and the Burma Army are still unable to agree on ceasefire terms and ethnic armed groups are trying to develop a common position among themselves regarding participation in the government’s so-called “nationwide” ceasefire accord to be held by the end of October. For the ethnic people who have never experienced peace in their lifetime, it remains a dream.

The communal violence in Arakan State continues and has spilled over to other areas of the country. The Rohingya as well as Muslim communities are still living under extreme fear.

There have been some improvements in the telecommunication sector, but it is still among the most unreliable in the region. There has not yet been any much-needed infrastructure upgrade. Education quality is just as poor as it has always been, while access to basic health care remains a major challenge facing the vast majority of ordinary people. Serious human rights violations continue, with the police and Burma Army troops being among major perpetrators and protected under a system of impunity.

In brief, the people have not yet received significant benefits from the reform process. Their voices have been ignored, which even the optimist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has admitted recently. The international community is now disabled with few sources of leverage to encourage meaningful reforms that will truly benefit the people. The granting of the ASEAN chairmanship to Burma amid such problems is clearly a reward for the Burma government but not yet for the people. Both the Burma government and ASEAN must ensure that situation faced by the people of Burma improves during this chairmanship. The international community must seriously start to listen to the people instead of the government, and take steps to pressure the government to make genuine people-centered reforms, proving that the international community still has the people of Burma’s best interests at heart.

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