This week’s elections in Burma will no doubt add to the hype about democratic change in the country and have apologists of the nominally civilian government calling for the international community to drop economic sanctions.
If the elections are indeed fair, and this is a big “if,” it would certainly be a first in Burma and a benchmark on the path to democracy. But there are only four dozen Parliamentary seats up for grabs in this week’s election, so even if there is no foul play, then only a sliver of the Parliament would have been elected through a fair and transparent process. The winners of this election, and the rest of Parliament, would remain under the control of the military – as dictated by Burma’s 2008 Constitution.
A fair election would mark a departure from Burma’s corrupt past, but it is not reason enough for the international community to stop pushing for continued change. Nor is it reason to give amnesty for past human rights abuses or to allow sanctions to expire.
The US Congress has emphasised several criteria that must be met before sanctions are dropped, and these conditions should serve as a scorecard on which to measure democratic progress: unconditionally release all political prisoners; allow humanitarian access to populations in all areas of armed conflict; and end human rights violations, including rape, forced labor, child labor, and the use of child soldiers.
The Burmese government has partially met some of these conditions, but it still has a long way to go, and implementing substantive change will take time. For example, ending human rights violations does not just mean halting abuses but also ending impunity for violations and ensuring accountability for past crimes.
Burma needs to ensure that perpetrators of human rights violations can be held accountable according to internationally recognised legal standards, which demands the establishment of the rule of law. The judiciary in Burma is not independent from the rest of the government, and ensuring this independence is a necessary element of ensuring fairness and transparency in the country’s judiciary.
Burma also needs to shift from militarisation and build a truly civilian government that can keep its military in check. And lastly, it needs to stop violence against civilians, egregious human rights violations, and denial of humanitarian aid in ethnic areas.
This is no small problem: ethnic minorities comprise about a third of the population of Burma, and these areas have a long history of human rights abuses.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have documented recent human rights abuses in several ethnic areas in Burma—in Karen, Shan, Kachin, and Chin States. When asked if they would return to Burma given the recent changes, refugees have answered with a resounding “no”—some refugees even laughed in my face at the question.
With decades of violence and corruption to reflect upon, refugees have said that they don’t trust the government and do not believe that the changes are genuine. Indeed, extrajudicial killings, forced labor, religious persecution, and pillaging are still widely reported in these areas. Accounting for these violations would be a major step towards democracy.
If Burma is truly transitioning to democracy, it is certainly in the earliest of stages. With so many more changes still needed in Burma, it would be foolish to allow all sanctions to expire. The international community should not give up its bargaining chips too soon.
The sanction legislation calls for specific criteria that must be met, including the unconditional release of political prisoners, the granting of humanitarian access, and an end to human rights violations. PHR continues to support the renewal of sanctions until each of these essential elements is actualised. Additionally, PHR calls on the U.S. government to continue to use sanctions as key leverage until the Burmese government is able to make peace with its own people over past and present abuses.
Change may happen in Burma, but it will not happen overnight. The international community and the business interests pushing to end sanctions must show patience and should not reward modest changes with hefty rewards. Sanctions must remain until more substantive reforms become a reality.
Bill Davis is the Burma Project Director for Physicians for Human Rights