Opinion: Burma's minorities must not be overlooked

COX 'S BAZAAR, Bangladesh and CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Twenty years after the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, a repressive barricade is being quietly raised in the jungles of Burma.

The Burmese military junta has begun erecting a concrete and barbed-wire fence along its western border with Bangladesh, allegedly to prevent smuggling, but more probably to prohibit the return from Bangladesh of some 200,000 Rohingya migrants — a persecuted Burmese Muslim minority group who are now stateless.

Burma’s new barrier symbolizes the past five decades of military rule and isolation from the free world. It should also remind the West of the brutal repression of ethnic minorities who abide mass atrocities behind Burma’s barricade.

As principal investigator for Physicians for Human Rights, I returned last week from a three-week trip to Burma and its neighboring countries — Bangladesh, India and Thailand — where I met with Burmese civil society and victims of human rights violations. Our investigation revealed ongoing crimes against humanity in this country where murder, forced displacement, slave labor, conscription of child soldiers, torture and rape comprise the military’s arsenal of rights abuses inflicted against ethnic minorities.

In Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, I interviewed a 72-year-old Buddhist monk whom Burmese military imprisoned and tortured for the past two years after he had led the peaceful demonstration that sparked the Saffron Revolution — the name of which stems from the monks’ colorful monastic robes.

In Aizawl, India a group of Christian women who fled Chin State in Burma this year reported to me unspeakable sexual violence they suffered at the hands of the Tatmadaw, or Burmese military, during its roundup of forced laborers.

In the Thai border town of Mae Sot, I met a 14-year-old landmine survivor whose left leg was blown off just days earlier while tending his family’s four water buffalo just across the border in Karen State, Burma.

Such egregious breaches of human dignity are not isolated incidents. They highlight the military’s widespread and systematic campaign to crush dissent by imprisonment, torture, enslavement and the silencing of ethnic minorities such as the Chin, Karen, Kokang, Rakhine, Rohingya and Shan. No group is spared.

Burma’s de facto president, the reclusive Senior General Than Shwe, seized power 20 years ago while promising free and fair elections in 1990. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) trounced the military-backed State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) garnering 59 percent of the vote and 80 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. SLORC dismissed the results, and subsequently detained NLD’s Prime Minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi.

The merciless head of Burma’s military junta will not brook a second defeat at the polls next year. He has hence stepped-up militarization this past year resulting in forced relocation and attendant rights abuses. Than Shwe’s Tatmadaw has locked up 2,200 political prisoners, destroyed more than 3,200 villages and forced up to 3 million civilians to flee — all of which make it nearly impossible for the NLD and other political parties to organize prior to upcoming elections.

President Obama has recently embarked on a new policy of engagement with the Burmese military claiming targeted sanctions have failed to reform the repressive regime. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell met this month in the capital city Naypyidaw with his Burmese counterpart in a second round of dialogue, which began this September in New York. And Obama himself met recently with ASEAN leaders, including Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein, in Singapore.

For such diplomatic initiatives to succeed, the Obama administration must establish benchmarks and present credible consequences should its new strategy of engagement fail to produce movement toward real political change within Burma. The minimum price for continued dialogue should be the unconditional release of all political prisoners and the immediate cessation of rights abuses against ethnic minorities — without which there can be neither free nor fair elections in 2010.

By meeting with the Americans, Than Shwe has already procured what he craves most — international legitimacy — and revoking it is perhaps the best hope for a shift in Burma. If these series of high-level diplomatic talks do not result in any significant positive change by the military junta, the United States should fully implement tougher sanctions already allowed by the 2008 Burmese JADE Act and press the U.N. Security Council to launch a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma.

Burma’s military regime has maintained its intransigence for decades in the face of outside demands for change. As the United States tries to alter that posture, it must not forsake justice and accountability for toothless diplomatic engagement.

Richard Sollom is Director of Research and Investigations at Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he directs public health research and human rights investigations in areas of armed conflict.