Yesterday President Obama became the first U.S leader to visit Burma, as part of a trip to South Asia that is laden with optimism for a better future in the region. Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military government - which is why opposition groups, prodemocracy groups and some countries (including the U.S) that do not recognize the legitimacy of the military authority have continued to call it Burma. Yet the name change seems benign when compared to the litany of injustices that have plagued the nation thanks to decades of military rule. With Burma’s percieved move towards a more democratic, reformed nation, there is simmering hope for a better tomorrow – though the path seems arduous.
For instance, here is a summary of the state of Burma as painted by the Amnesty International 2012 Report –
The government enacted limited political and economic reforms, but human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law in ethnic minority areas increased during the year. Some of these amounted to crimes against humanity or war crimes. Forced displacement reached its highest level in a decade, and reports of forced labor their highest level in several years. Authorities maintained restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, and perpetrators of human rights violations went unpunished. Despite releasing at least 313 political prisoners during the year, authorities continued to arrest such people, further violating their rights by subjecting them to ill-treatment and poor prison conditions.
And according to the Human Rights Watch,
Ethnic conflict escalated in 2011 as longstanding ceasefires with ethnic armed groups broke down in northern Burma. The Burmese military continues to be responsible for abuses against civilians in conflict areas, including forced labor, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, the use of “human shields,” and indiscriminate attacks on civilians
This is in addition to the recent outbreaks of religious and nationalistic violence between Buddhists and the minority Muslims in the Rakhine state, which has left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced in just the past few months.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been a beacon of courage and peace in this shattered region. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the U.S Congressional Gold Medal in September this year for her valiant efforts in fighting the tyrannical Burmese regime and bringing together a populace stricken by worst atrocities one can imagine. Following her release in 2010 after nearly 15 years of house arrest, she immediately got into action and threw her hat in the ring. She was subsequently appointed the Leader of the lower house of Parliament after her party, the National League of Democracy, won a majority of the votes in the recent by-elections. Here is an excerpt from her book Freedom From Fear that shows the stuff she's made of:
“Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
Will Burma continue along a painfully slow ascent towards justice for all its citizens? Will further socioeconomic advances be made as Western nations rescind their sanctions and increase investment in the country? Or is real progress a forlorn hope in a country where the Constitution provides that the military may reenter politics at any point in the game? Time will tell. But it seems like we are taking the right steps in opening the doors towards a new, stirring relationship with Burma.
Couple of pictures from my 2008 trip to Burma: