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Real Reform is Key to Ending Continuing Rights Abuses in Burma (click to view article)

Burma has become synonymous with the word reform. It is commonplace now to use the terms ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’, ‘significant move forward’, and ‘commendable’ to describe recent changes in Burma. On November 5, UN Special Advisor Vijay Nambiar employed this language to describe the first national ceasefire dialogue between the Burma’s military and various ethnic armed groups. While this meeting represents a positive step toward ending violence, the lack of institutionalized democratic reform allows the Burmese military to continue to act as spoilers.

Immediately preceding the ceasefire dialogue, for example, the Burmese military attacked villages of Kachin people, an ethnic and religious minority. Burmese soldiers held hundreds of villagers hostage in a local church, arrested several male villagers, raped a 15 year old and forced nearly 2,000 villagers to flee.[1] A few days after the peace talks, they attacked a camp made up of the same people who fled Nam Lim Pa village, which they had raided just a few weeks earlier. These brutal acts of violence coupled with the denial of humanitarian aid, have become commonplace for the Kachin over the past two and half years. Meanwhile, the world celebrates ‘reform’ in Burma.

The Kachin are not alone. Many of Burma’s other ethnic and religious minorities have found themselves victims of the military in recent months. For the Palaung, who do not have a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government, villages are attacked and civilians are used as forced labor and human shields. Even in minority areas where a ceasefire agreement exists, communities are learning that these agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. The Shan and Karenni have seen their villages attacked to clear areas for development projects. The Karen and others have seen their land taken for economic projects. For Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities, there is nothing ‘unprecedented’ or ‘commendable’ about the Burmese military’s brutality.

While most of these abuses have garnered little notice, anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence has captured the world’s attention. The vicious nature of the violence coupled with alarm over the rise of Buddhist nationalism and shock over the near silence of Burma’s prominent figures, has created a commendable interest in inter-faith and inter-communal dialogue. Missing, however, is the recognition of the connective tissue that links the human rights abuses across ethnic and religious lines: the Burmese government’s impunity. Neither Kachin nor Rohingya victims have seen their perpetrators brought to justice or authority figures held accountable.

A foundation of democratic laws and institutions that promote the rule of law are key to ending human rights abuses and securing national reconciliation in Burma. Under the 2008 constitution, there is no civilian control of the military, no independent judiciary, and no protections for ethnic or religious minorities. These are the reforms the people of Burma need for genuine democracy, peace and national reconciliation to take hold. Violence will continue unabated unless these reforms become a priority.

Jennifer Quigley is the Executive Director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.