The Burma Humanitarian Mission supports community based health-care and education projects that improve lives of the Burmese people. This is an article about religious freedom in Burma. Read more about the Burma Humanitarian Mission here.
For decades, Burma existed in a stagnant state of a dictatorship and conflict. Changes over the last 2 years have left many stupefied: Aung San Suu Kyi released; elections held and a nascent ceasefire emerging. Are the reforms real? Or, are the reforms window dressing to dupe Western governments?
Bill Keller of the New York Times offers some penetrating insights in the wake of the recent visit to the U.S. of Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s President U Thein Sein. It’s worth a few minutes of your day to read. (The Burmese Odd Couple: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/01/opinion/keller-the-burmese-odd-couple.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121001
While Keller captures the upbeat and promise of what the reforms offer, he, more importantly, provides unique insights into why Sein is pursing them and what’s the source of his power or authority to do so. At the same time, he images Aung San Suu Kyi in the balanced view of both moral heroine for her steadfast commitment and phenomenal sacrifice for democratic principles that resulted in years of house arrest plus her emerging role as stateswoman and political leader in Burma.
Keller also offers insights into the role of sanctions – as rally points for both advocates for a free Burma and the dictators of Burma. (It gives me pause to wonder: did my moral commitment to support sanctions give leverage to the brutal regime I loathed?)
As you get drawn into Keller’s analysis, there are certain singular comments that deserve a more detailed discourse. One, for instance, is how he apparently endorses Aung San Suu Kyi’s view of the “need to make the military feel secure against retribution” which means “no war crimes tribunals.”
On one hand, this may be a prescription for moving forward. It embraces forgiveness. At the same time, can one pause to wonder if it is Aung San Suu Kyi who is in a position to offer such forgiveness on the part of those who suffered far more than she did?
I realize it may strike some as heresy to suggest others may have suffered more than the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Over the past 50 years, the Burma army raped thousands of women and young girls while executing and murdering countless others. Such numbing events are followed by a cascading list of other atrocities that are incomprehensible in our communities: villages burnt, food confiscated, people forced to labor for the army and then walk through minefields to clear a path.
Organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group, at great personal risk, documented many of the horrific events in a manner to support to legal investigations of genocide and war crimes. They captured the villages where the events occurred, who suffered and the Burma army company or battalion commander’s name in charge.
It is not for me or Keller to endorse Aung San Suu Kyi’s offer of no tribunals – but for those who suffered and survived to validate or refuse such a position.
Keller also makes light of Congress’ passing of the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act this past August while the State Department was busy drawing up how to dismantle sanctions on Burma’s Regime. He downplays the importance of the Act by stating it was done only to appease advocates who are focused on the ‘narrow grievances like the plight of ethnic minorities’ or the risk of ‘exploitation of Burma’s oil and gas’ resources.
I would suggest that realities reflect that the plight of the ethnic minorities is not a ‘narrow grievance.’ The minorities comprise 45% of Burma’s population. (To ignore them has a certain Romney-esq tone.) And, it’s hardly a narrow issue as the regime holds ‘free elections’ in November of 2010 and launches military offensives against at least two of the larger minority groups the same day. In June of last year, the Regime singlehandedly broke a 17 year cease fire in Kachin State and weekly inflicts violence against these people as it seeks to gain control of land (and oil and gas therein) for development by international corporations. The 70,000 children, women and men forced to seek sanctuary in the jungles or China do not seem to be a narrow issue to me. Finally, the Regime’s actions in Arakan State against the Rohingya demonstrated a repeated pattern of abuse.
Keller is right to highlight the promise of hope that casts rays of light across the landscape of Burma. But we should not be blinded to the pre-meditated cruelty and horrific human toll the courageous peoples of Burma have endured — and still endure. Nor should we let our fatigue of Burma and our eagerness for a democratic Burma translate to us pre-empting those who have lived and suffered to identify their path to peace and reconciliation.
I suspect Burma’s path forward – if it comes from the people – will be something inspired, unique and gives us pause to admire. The peoples of Burma I have met have never offered anything less than that.
Article written by Michael Isherwood
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