Queen's College, Oxford
Ethnic minorities make up roughly 40% of the Burmese population, yet many of these minorities have been sorely oppressed for decades. Despite ‘full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas’ promised in the Panglong Agreement of 1947, this has never materialised, and many groups, among them the Karen, Shan and Kachin, have been attacked ruthlessly as part of the government policy of ‘Burmisation’: an attempt to maintain the geographical and cultural integrity of Burma, preventing minorities from establishing autonomy; a policy which has also led to widespread religious persecution such as that of the Muslim Rohingya people. Burma’s ethnic national tribal groups have suffered countless human rights abuses: millions have been displaced, both internally and into neighbouring countries; many, including children have been enslaved as forced labourers or soldiers; rape has been consistently used as weapon of war; civilians have been deliberately targeted by the army; and many villages have simply ceased to exist.
Meanwhile, while such human rights abuses continue unabated, the West is busily pursuing a policy of rapprochement with the Burmese government. The visit of Hillary Clinton to Burma in early December - the first by a US secretary of state in 50 years - followed several other high-profile diplomatic visits and marked a historic moment; one which many take to signify the imminent end of US sanctions and the opening up of Burma to more foreign investment - a view reflected by the sudden surge in Rangoon property prices following Clinton’s visit, and growing interest among investors. Western sanctions against Burma could and should have been much stronger, had business interests not served to dilute them, but there is only so much they can do in the face of continued investment by neighbours such as Singapore and China. Foreign direct investment in Burma amounted to almost $20 billion dollars for the year 2010/11, a huge increase from the $300 million a year before, and $14 billion of this came from China alone. Thus, it is clearly crucial that the international community win China over if continued sanctions are to have any great effect.
Despite this weakened hold over Burma, the international community could be doing much more. Although the Burmese government has made some promising reforms, there is still a long way to go, and past events show us that the government will only respond when it feels pressurised: in 2007 several high-profile political prisoners were released the day before the UN Security Council was due to vote on a resolution about Burma; and the government only allowed foreign aid agencies into the country following Cyclone Nargis in 2008 after threats to take them to the Security Council and fears that ships carrying aid off the coast could be used to attack them. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma has called for all political prisoners to be released and for a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in Burma to be set up, but he has so far been ignored, since many are unwilling to damage their own interests in Burma. Much more can also be done to help the hundreds of thousands of people from ethnic minorities who have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Refugees often live in appalling conditions, and neighbouring governments, such as that of Thailand, struggle to manage the huge influx of refugees coming across their borders. These people are desperately in need of the help of the international community - both in terms of aid, and of advocacy - so that they may one day return to what remains of their homes.
In their eagerness to encourage more political reforms, the international community must not forget the plight of Burma’s ethnic national tribal groups, who are having to fight harder than ever for their very survival; although it is right to welcome political reform, the recent human rights abuses and escalation of violence against minority groups cannot be tolerated. In order to bring about real change in Burma, it is necessary for the international community, including China, to unite behind demands for the cessation of violence and be prepared to back this up with strong action: enforcing multilateral, comprehensive sanctions; and instigating a UN inquiry into human rights abuses - even if this goes against powerful business interests. How likely this is to occur, however, is a different question entirely.