Sunday, January 29, 2012

Further Reforms Before Rewards

Aung San Suu Kyi started campaigning this Sunday for the upcoming by-elections in April (VOA, "Burma Democracy Leader Begins Political Campaigning". *Side note - Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "by-elections" as "a special election held between regular elections in order to fill a vacancy"*. The results will impact future interactions involving her pro-democracy NLD party, US diplomats, and the Burmese government. According to self-commentary on Sen. McConnell’s recent visit, most of US actions are heavily influenced by Suu Kyi’s approach to her country’s government as they have been in the past regarding sanctions. He has said that, "it was too soon to lift sanctions but was open to rewarding the government for further reforms [and would] take his cue from Suu Kyi." In the past, the Clinton and Bush administrations tried to persuade the military to honor the NLD’s 1990 election victory (AP, "In divided US politics, rare agreement on Myanmar").   

Well I think it's rare for our current Congress to actually agree about a foreign policy issue.  However, there are a few voices of dissent such as "Republican leader of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, FL Rep. Ros-Lehtinen has called concessions to the military 'grossly premature.'" (see above AP article). While I think she might be phrasing it too harshly, I do agree that the US should proceed with caution and lengthen the exchange timeline so that the military will realize reforms are mandatory but will not necessarily be reciprocated. 
The reforms are in large part motivated by lagging economic development and the pressing need to liberalize so as to attract a wider range of trade partners.  According to one Burmese representative at the World Economic Forum currently being held in Davos, "Burma is trying to create an investment friendly environment and attract interest from some of its neighbors, like Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Laos, in addition to China, the United States and the European Union" (VOA, "Burmese Trade Minister Promises More Reforms").  As the first Burmese delegation to a WEF, it is "sign of positive changes" in Suu Kyi's opinion.  But as always, treat these efforts to open up with careful consideration.
I would recommend that the US government consider a gradual easing of sanctions after an intense evaluation of the April elections.  One of the organizations we met in Thailand, the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, put out a statement saying,“First we need from the Burmese regime is to release all political prisoners. Second is to help [achieve] nationwide peace and third, to allow citizens to set up human rights organizations in order to promote and protect human rights. [Only after] we receive those things we should consider lifting sanctions” (VOA, "Rights Groups Urge International Community to Maintain Burma Sanctions").  On the other hand, some critics suggest lifting sanctions sooner so that aid organizations have the means to help out communities in immediate need.  At the same time, there are over 1000 political prisoners in ethnic areas that need to be released from terms that they never should have received in the first place.  Furthermore, there are still many Internally Displaced Persons, child soldiers, the continuation of human trafficking and forced labor, etc.  U.S. Ambassador for human trafficking, Luis CdeBaca recommends "a more robust victim identification (program)" that can help victims in Burma as well as in neighboring areas (VOA, "US Calls for Burma Military to Account for Human Trafficking").  The government must also address "Burma's archaic laws [that] allow conscription of workers for public projects" (TIME, "Envoy: Burma Weak on Human Trafficking").   It's not all up to the US either, there should be a collaborative effort to work on a multilateral level with international and regional bodies to monitor Burma while applying strategic pressure to ensure further developments regarding human rights and democracy.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

An unexpectedly warm day welcomed us back to campus today for the first day of the spring semester. Already we have ideas for post-trip activism, discussed during one of the "reflection" sessions during the trip. Among these are: photography exhibition, film screening, guest speakers from US Campaign for Burma or the US Institute for Peace, etc. We are also planning to restart the AU chapter of the Student Campaign for Burma this semester.

Major developments have been observed even as we left the Thai-Burma border region. For example last Friday, 651 prisoners, including high-profile former politicians, democracy activists, monks, etc.
Perhaps a little too swiftly, the U.S. reciprocated with an announcement that it granting full diplomatic ties with Burma after a 20-year absence (

However, there are still 1547 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Burma yet to be released (figures from the Assistance Assoc. for Political Prisoners, Jan. 2012). More recent news suggests a possible lifting of sanctions depending on the upcoming by-elections on April 1 ( Let's hope that the Burmese government doesn't celebrate April Fool's Day.

*Coming soon: posts from our members about the trip! Thoughts, memories, photos, etc.