(Commentary) – For years, I used to say that I had hope for freedom in Burma, but such hope flew in the face of the facts. My hope was based on a belief that the courage of the Burmese people would be rewarded in the end, and that history shows that dictators do not last forever.
It was, however, a vague hope which I had to hold onto to ensure that my advocacy efforts were not in vain. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for most of the past two decades, over two thousand dissidents were in jail, and the country’s military was carrying out crimes against humanity. A visit by a British prime minister was inconceivable.
Today, Burma may be beginning to change. A year ago, I was deported from the country, because the authorities disliked a book I had written about the previous dictator, Senior General Than Shwe. As they threw me out, a military intelligence officer told me assuredly there was “no change, no change.” Just a few months later, the new president, Thein Sein, stunned the world by meeting the woman the regime had refused to talk to but failed to defeat: the democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since that meeting last August, he has taken significant and very welcome steps forward, releasing many political prisoners, including very high profile dissidents, initiating ceasefire talks with some of the country’s ethnic groups, and making it possible for Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to participate in by-elections for the country’s new Parliament. Suu Kyi won her seat in a landslide, and the party won 43 of the 45 seats contested. Ten months after I was deported, I was able to go back to Rangoon.
All this has made David Cameron’s visit later this week not only possible, but desirable. We should now be seeking ways to encourage Thein Sein to continue on this reformist path, and one way to do so is to bring him and other reformers within the regime in from the cold. However, just as it is important to recognize, welcome and applaud the steps taken so far, it is equally important to keep on reminding Thein Sein that there is much more he needs to do.
The Prime Minister must be clear with Thein Sein: so far, what we have seen amounts primarily to a change in atmosphere rather than a change in system. We must not underestimate the significance of the reforms, but nor must we think that the job is done. Reform must of course begin with a change in atmosphere, a widening of political space, a relaxation in mood, but those steps must be the first in a process of change.
The next steps must include the release of all remaining political prisoners, access to prisons and all parts of the country for international human rights monitors, unrestricted access to all areas for international humanitarian aid organizations, and substantial legislative, institutional and constitutional reform. Unjust laws which could put dissidents back in jail tomorrow if the authorities so wished must be amended or repealed; an independent judiciary established; the rule of law developed.
And while the NLD’s victory in the by-elections is significant in what it says about the desires of ordinary Burmese voters, it does not by itself signal lasting reform. The NLD will hold only 6.4 per cent of the parliamentary seats, in a legislature dominated by the military and pro-military parties. In 2010, Burma’s first elections in twenty years were heavily rigged to ensure that the military’s party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), had a large majority.
Just to be sure of guaranteeing power, in addition to rigging and harassment, the military reserved 25 per cent of the seats for themselves even before the poll. So Aung San Suu Kyi and her MPs will have a lot of work to do to build an informal coalition with other pro-democracy parties, ethnic parties and reform-minded members of the USDP, if there is to be a chance for real change. And the real test will be Burma's next general election, in 2015.
In addition to legislative, institutional and constitutional reform, the major challenge to be addressed is the plight of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, who make up 40 per cent of the population and inhabit sixty per cent of the land. For 65 years, successive Burmese governments, and particularly the military regimes that have ruled the country since Ne Win seized power in a coup in 1962, have been fighting the ethnic groups and their simple demand for equal rights and a degree of autonomy. The Karen were the first to be attacked, but by the mid-1960s almost all the ethnic groups were facing brutal military offensives by the regime.
Both Britain and Aung San Suu Kyi have an important role to play in helping Burma secure a lasting nationwide peace. Britain has an historic responsibility, because many of the ethnic nationalities, especially the Karen and Kachin, fought bravely alongside the Allies against the Japanese in the Second World War. Britain promised them autonomy, but failed to deliver, leaving them at the mercy of Burman nationalists after independence.
Suu Kyi, similarly, has a legacy to fulfil, since it was her father, Aung San, who presided over the Panglong Agreement which established equal rights and autonomy for the ethnic nationalities. Aung San, who led the country’s independence movement against British colonial rule, was assassinated before independence, and the Panglong Agreement was discarded. Decades of war and suffering ensued.
Last weekend, leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the largest ethnic resistance groups, held an historic meeting with President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw, and also held talks with Suu Kyi. The regime has held ceasefire talks with other ethnic nationalities, and established some ceasefire agreements. These steps are very welcome, but they do not in themselves guarantee peace. Ceasefires – an end to active fighting – are not enough, because without a political solution there can be no durable peace.
The government, the ethnic nationalities and the democracy movement must hold talks, and a political system which grants the ethnic people equal rights and a degree of autonomy must be established through dialogue. Burma's regime must embrace the "F" word they have resisted for so long: federalism. Contrary to their view, federalism is the system which would keep the country together, rather than splitting it apart.
Of particular concern currently is the situation in Kachin State, northern Burma. I visited the Kachin on the China-Burma border in January, and heard some of the worst stories of human rights violations I have ever heard, in twelve years of working on Burma. I heard many stories of killings of civilians. I met a woman who, just two months previously, while pregnant, hid for two days under a bed, without food or water, to escape the Burma Army. She heard bullets fly over her, and a Burma Army officer tell his troops: “If you see a Kachin, just kill them”.
I met a pastor who had been arrested and severely beaten and tortured non-stop for six hours. I met a woman whose husband had been decapitated before being shot. I met a 12-year-old boy who had seen his mother shot dead. All these incidents had occurred within the final few months of 2011 and even in January, and I have heard accounts of similar atrocities occurring since my visit. I hope the Prime Minister will raise the situation in Kachin State with Thein Sein and others, and make it clear to them that these horrific attacks must stop and the war in Kachin State must end, if Burma’s reform process is to be taken seriously.
Another issue Cameron should raise is the often overlooked plight of the Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim group who have lived in northern Arakan State for generations. The Rohingyas are denied citizenship and are effectively stateless, subjected to severe restrictions and persecution. Until their citizenship is restored, and they are granted equal rights with all other citizens of Burma, true democracy and freedom cannot take root.
So there is much on Cameron’s "to do" list on Friday, and a careful balance to strike. To fail to ignore the progress already made could undermine Thein Sein and the reformers and stall the process. But to ignore the continuing human rights violations and the need for substantial institutional and constitutional changes, to embrace the situation today as the end of the road, and to lift all pressure on the regime to change could equally undermine chances of real democracy in Burma.
So far, the Government has got it about right, and William Hague’s pledge of gradual lifting of sanctions, in proportionate response to changes on the ground, rather than removing all sanctions in one go, is the right one. When I was in Rangoon in January, everyone I met – activists who have supported sanctions and those who have been critical – emphasized that to lift all pressure in one go, before change is secured, would be disastrous. We must maintain our leverage and ensure that sanctions are lifted step by step.
As the first western leader to visit Burma in decades, the Prime Minister has a unique opportunity to make good our failed promises of the past, support the reformers and the democrats, and help encourage real change that will bring the freedom and peace for which all the people of Burma have struggled, at great cost, for so long.
- Benedict Rogers, a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, is the author of a new book, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, to be published in July by Random House. He has visited Burma and its borders more than 40 times.