Backward step for reform in Myanmar?

Yes, Myanmar's military backed government has promised elections in 2015 and released Aun San Suu Kyi from prison. But it's still calling the shots - and violently.

Courtesy of Democratic Voice of Burma/Reuters/File
Smoke is seen rising from a mountain in Kachin state in this still image taken from a video taken December. Myanmar's military has stepped up attacks on ethnic Kachin rebels in recent days with airstrikes.

Myanmar's military has stepped up attacks on ethnic Kachin rebels in recent days with airstrikes. This move calls into question efforts by the United States and other international powers to richly and quickly reward the nominally civilian regime there for a series of gestures toward political reform.

US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters yesterday that the Obama administration is "deeply troubled" by increased violence and urged dialogue between Myanmar's government and the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army, which has been in an on again, off again, war against the central state for decades.

Simon Roughneen wrote for the Monitor yesterday that "the Myanmar Army offensive – which includes helicopter gunships and aerial bombardment – comes after weeks of heavy fighting at outposts about 10 miles outside the KIA headquarters on the Myanmar-China frontier." He then quoted Joseph Nbwi Naw, a Kachin Catholic priest in the KIA headquarters town of Laiza as saying "the situation is very tense. The bombers are bombing just about four or five miles from the town here."

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is as ethnically complex a country as they come, and while most in the West have focused on the democracy struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, there is no guarantee that any new order that emerges from a political promise, with promised free elections scheduled for 2015, will create stability or justice for its minorities. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman like most of the junta that kept Myanmar under military rule from 1962 until 2011, has been mostly silent on violence targeting the ethnic Muslim Rohingyas recently and does not appear to have spoken out on the situation involving the Kachin.

In September, the Irrawady, a Thailand-based news organization that focuses on Myanmar, reported that Aung San Suu Kyi argued against taking a strong stand, as it could make the situation worse. "There are people who criticized me when I remained [silent] on this case," she told a Burmese group on a visit to New York. "They can do so as they are not satisfied with me. But, for me, I do not want to add fire to any side of the conflict." The Irrawady wrote: "Some critics have condemned [Aung San Suu Kyi] for staying silent on Kachin as well as the sectarian violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma."

In early November, I wrote about doubts over the wisdom of America's breakneck pace of normalization with Myanmar, with President Obama becoming the first US leader to ever visit the country that month.

Has there ever been faster restoration of US relations with a country it had once worked so hard to isolate, in the absence of either a US invasion or a revolution? I can't think of one. The once-maligned leaders are being brought in from the cold. The US even indicated in October that Burmese officers would be invited to the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand as official observers.

The Obama administration's motivations are clear: Demonstrate the benefits of the generals’ political opening and turn toward democracy. But with the breathless rush to friendship comes a country where ethnic tensions still dominate, and ethnic violence, specifically against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, that the generals have been either unwilling or unable to stop.

... If all goes well, the Obama administration’s overture toward Myanmar will go down as a major foreign policy achievement, and more importantly signal a brighter future for Myanmar’s 48 million people. But there are challenges and pitfalls ahead, and with each concession the US and other major powers make before 2015, a potential carrot to offer for positive change is spent.

Hopefully, Obama will not have gone to Myanmar too soon.

The recent war with the Kachin is evidence of how hard it has been to build on the fruits of "dialogue" between Myanmar and armed ethnic-minorities. A 17-year cease-fire between the Kachin rebels, in northeastern Myanmar along the Chinese border, broke in June of 2011, and the results have been catastrophic. Human Rights Watch estimated that 75,000 Kachin were displaced from their homes in the fighting, recording the razing of homes, stealing of property, torture of Kachin civilians, use of civilians as slave labor, and the rape of Kachin women, all by Myanmar soldiers.

Such events have been frequent for Myanmar's ethnic minorities since shortly after independence from Britain in 1948. In February 1947, nationalist hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and other nationalist leaders signed the Panglong agreement with ethnic minorities, who today make up about 40 percent of the national population. The agreement envisioned Myanmar as a federal state, with regional autonomy for ethnic minority states like Kachin, where the residents are mostly Christian and speak a language distinct from the ethnic-majority Burmans, who are mostly Buddhist.

But autonomy was never delivered, and when Aung San and six members of his cabinet were assassinated in July 1947, the stage was set for decades of conflict not just with the Kachin but other ethnic minorities like the Shan and the Wa, many living in the rugged mountains in eastern and northern Burma.

For now, the elections of 2015 are a long way away, and whether those elections will lead to a more just approach to ethnic minorities remains an open question. That Aung San Suu Kyi has suffered personally and for decades for her principled stand on democracy for Myanmar is no guarantee that she or anyone else who may come to power there will handle the country's ethnic tensions any better than their predecessors have for the past 60 years.

Holding some diplomatic and sanctions pressure in the back pocket may prove a wiser course than declaring a democracy victory in early 2013.

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