Tempered Hope for Burma

By: Jason Crosby

The following appeared on the Courier-Journal's editorial page on Sunday, December 4.

In recent months, diplomatic relationships between Burma (disputably referred to as Myanmar) and the United States have thawed.  Leaders of the military regime that rules Burma have recently made gestures that indicate a desire for increased cooperation with the United States.  Burmese President Thein Sein met with Burma’s most well-known human rights advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi.  President Thein Sein recently released a small number of political prisoners and changed laws to enable former political prisoners to participate in the political process.   The Burmese military regime also conducted “general elections” about a year ago in an effort to pass the junta off as a civilian government.  The Obama Administration has responded to these moves by sending various officials to Burma in the past four months.  These diplomatic maneuvers paved the way for Secretary Clinton’s visit to Burma this week.

Clinton’s visit is the first to Burma by a United States Secretary of State in more than 50 years.  One of her stated objectives is to see how open Burma’s new leaders are to reform.  Clinton recently told NBC, “They need to begin to look at how they resolve these ethnic conflicts that have driven tens of thousands of Burmese of different ethnicities into refugee status.  They have to have a real electoral system with an open door to political parties and free expression.”  This kind of interest in the Burmese government’s human rights record offers some hope for the ethnic minorities that have suffered for decades under the junta.  

Unfortunately, while high-level diplomatic conversation has transpired, the Burmese military regime continues to oppress and terrorize ethnic minority groups in Burma. The words from the mouths of Burmese government officials may be different, but they continue to conduct their business as usual.  In the last seven months there has been an increase in the number of serious human rights violations in Burma.  Recently, according the U.S. Campaign for Burma, the Burmese army conducted “the largest forced displacement in a decade of over 100,000 new internally displaced persons.”  The U.S. Campaign for Burma also reports a recent increase “in the use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labor, and the use of civilians as human shields.”  

Many of the members at the church where I serve as Co-Pastor, Crescent Hill Baptist Church, are refugees from Burma.  I have had a chance to develop genuine friendship with Karen, Chin, and Karreni refugees from Burma.  They have shared with me stories about Burmese soldiers burning their villages and forcing them to seek refuge in the jungle.  They have told me of family members murdered and friends arrested by the Burmese army.  I have seen firsthand the devastating affects of landmines planted by the Burmese army.

Secretary Clinton’s visit gives me hope that real change may be on the horizon for ethnic minority groups in Burma.  However, my hope is tempered by the fact that human rights abuses continue.  Before the United States engages in agreements with Burma that may bring about economic or political gain for those with power here and there, real reform must sweep across Burma so that ethnic minority groups there no longer live in fear and terror.