In recent months, Burma has been very much in the news. The country has released democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, inaugurated a new president, and undertaken some modest reforms. Washington has intensified its efforts to engage the country, appointing a special envoy to Burma in April 2011 and sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Rangoon last December—making her the most senior U.S. official to visit in 50 years.
At the same time, the governing junta maintains its tight grip on power, continues to hold political prisoners, and commits egregious human rights violations. The Obama administration has eased some sanctions, but most remain in place.
On February 23, the Asia Program, along with Human Rights Watch (HRW), hosted a presentation by David Scott Mathieson. Mathieson, HRW’s senior Burma researcher, reported on his recent trip to Rangoon, and offered his perspective on the political and human rights situations.
Mathieson asserted that Burma today is a “paradox”—signs of change abound, yet many of the old problems remain. For example, the regime has released several hundred political prisoners—including the country’s most famous comedian—yet several hundred more are still behind bars. Similarly, government rhetoric on human rights has changed. Mathieson contrasted the junta’s traditional defiance with President Thein Sein’s March 2011 inaugural speech, in which the leader noted that people in regions riven by ethnic strife have “endured a hell of untold miseries.” However, there is no indication that the country’s notoriously brutal army is acting any better than it has over the last six decades. Meanwhile, press freedoms have improved, with more reporting permitted on ethnic conflict—but not on the conduct of hostilities, and specifically the military’s abuses. Finally, while legal reform is underway, old laws used to stifle dissent have not been repealed.
Mathieson also described how the Burmese people are no longer afraid to express publicly their support for Aung San Suu Kyi. Mobs crowd around her home; the media jockey for interviews with her; and t-shirts bear her likeness. “People used to whisper her name to me, and run away terrified,” Mathieson recalled. Such fears have now disappeared—yet so, seemingly, has the democracy leader’s opposition to the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is contesting the country’s April 1 by-elections, has stated that she supports President Sein, and wants others to as well. She has also said that she does not want Burma to experience an Arab Spring.
The story is very different with the human rights situation, which according to Mathieson has generally seen “no improvement.” He explained how the military often plucks common criminals from prisons and labor camps around the country, clothes them in blue uniforms, and forces them to carry enormous loads of supplies for army units engaged in heavy fighting against rebel groups. They are often killed in battle, abandoned when wounded, and executed if they complain. The military also takes women as forced labor, and in some cases subjects them to sexual violence. Mathieson contended that ridding the military of its culture of “recreational sadism” and “sense of entitlement to abuse people” constitutes a huge challenge.
Mathieson offered several recommendations for U.S. policy in Burma. He applauded the Obama administration’s willingness to slowly engage Rangoon, and called for sanctions to be phased out, though gradually. Safeguards to keep drug money from entering and leaving Burma should be maintained. However, travel bans should be removed; it is “absurd,” he said, to have such measures in place given the flurry of leaders from the West visiting Burma. And he advocated for the removal of all sanctions that inhibit the flow of much-needed international investment into the impoverished country.
This event was co-sponsored with Human Rights Watch.