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8. Rights of Ethnic Minorities
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The "Other" Karen in Myanmar : Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms
For their own good. For International Day of Democracy, Iris Gonzales offers snap shots of the country's corruption, poverty and drug war. The story is a complex web of deceit, connecting the ruling elite, royalty, investment banks and offshore tax havens. Nithin Coca Should Suu Kyi lead Burma? David Hutt explores whether this should be the case What is corruption? Anti-corruption drive or political witch-hunt? Freedom and football. In a letter to a friend, Antoine Cassar relives a visit to a detention centre in Luxembourg. Following a devastating fire at a nightclub, Romanians have taken to the streets to protest corruption that kills.
Minorities report. Despite a fig leaf of respectability, scandals are stacking up for the Honduran president. Rohingyas in Canada: portraits of life and struggle. International Football Racketeers. Life after the boat journey in Malaysia. Sanctions imposed over the past 15 years need to be rethought, not just to make them more effective, but to reflect changes in the Myanmar economy and the military's control of key sectors. The system of military monopolies through their holding companies has markedly declined in the past decade, and the economy is now controlled by a rising class of oligarchs who benefit from close ties to senior military officers, either for awarding contracts, accessing lucrative natural resources, or acting as middlemen for foreign arms purchases.
One of the major tycoons involved as a middleman in bilateral Myanmar and Chinese investment is Steven Law, head of the Asia World Company, whom the George W Bush administration placed on its targeted sanctions list for Myanmar, and has long been on US counter-narcotics lists. Is Steinberg suggesting that individuals such as Law should not be subject to financial restrictions, despite abundant evidence of drug trafficking and funding military projects?
Observers such as Steinberg laud Thein Sein's speech for his reference to "clean government" and tackling corruption, but he refrains from pointing out what everyone in Myanmar knows: pervasive corruption benefits the military and their business cronies. Instead of summarily dismissing sanctions, Steinberg might want to critique their efficacy, which would prove valuable in the debate of how they are imposed.
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Instead, he just says they drive the Myanmar military further into isolation. If this is the case, why do so many Myanmar officials call for the repeal of sanctions so prominently? Could it be that sanctions are inhibiting the ability of the privileged class of officials and oligarchs and their families to maximize their profits and deepen their control of the economy? Calls for a high-level inquiry have been voiced for years, from the UN, a Harvard Law School report endorsed by five eminent jurists including Judge Richard Goldstone, and numerous non-governmental organizations.
The current proposal did not stem from activist "orthodoxy", but from a recommendation by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March To date, 16 countries have publicly affirmed their support for the establishment of an inquiry, as have two of Quintana's predecessors, a host of Nobel Prize winners, many Myanmar political opposition organizations, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
This isn't orthodoxy; it's a principled call seeking an end to impunity for serious violations of international law. Steinberg is fueling the erroneous perception that the proposal is designed to target just the Myanmar military, when a commission of inquiry would investigate all parties to the conflict and alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. It would first establish the facts of the conflict and map out patterns of abuses and perpetrators, and then make recommendations.
It is not a covert push for an International Criminal Court investigation. As Suu Kyi herself has said, she supports an inquiry, not a tribunal. Steinberg hardly acknowledges the fundamental role that state violence, coercion and fear play in the daily routine of many people's lives in Myanmar. He avoids mentioning any details of these "apparent" violations. Increased counter-insurgency operations this year in Karen, Shan and Kachin states have displaced some 50, people, with reports of direct attacks against civilians, torture, use of sexual violence against women and young girls, and other brutally commonplace features of Myanmar military practices.
It is anything but a "foolish consistency" to seek to end the suffering of the victims of the country's long running civil war past and present, the ongoing abuses resulting from intensive militarization in ethnic areas, and the systematic state persecution of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority in western Myanmar.
Upgrading Myanmar-China Relations to International Standards
Even new president Thein Sein in his March 30 speech voiced concerns over the "hell of untold miseries" that people living in conflict areas have endured for decades. The information minister Kyaw Hsan, in a press conference in August, reportedly broke down emotionally when discussing development initiatives in border conflict areas, which is either an acknowledgement of the abuses perpetrated in the war, a guilty conscience, or mere crocodile tears. What many detractors of the commission of inquiry proposal ignore is the role that such a commission played in increasing the engagement of the International Labor Organization ILO in Myanmar to tackle the widespread and systemic use of forced labor.
That inquiry, released in , paved the way for high-level talks between the ILO and military government, the official banning of all forced labor in , the establishment of a permanent ILO office in Yangon Rangoon , and a supplementary understanding reached in that permits the ILO to investigate cases of forced labor and child soldier recruitment. The efforts of the ILO are widely acknowledged as a model of principled international interaction with the Myanmar authorities, and official forced labor complaints to the ILO continue to increase. The effect has been a marked decrease in the use of forced labor by officials in urban and rural Myanmar over the past 10 years.
But as the ILO makes clear, the practice of the Myanmar army has not improved at all. Take, for instance, the post-election pattern of abuses. In January , the Myanmar military drew an estimated convicted criminals from more than 12 prisons in central Myanmar to carry supplies as conflict porters for intensified fighting against ethnic Karen rebels. The ex-porters I interviewed spoke of how soldiers forced them to walk first through heavily mined areas, summarily executed wounded porters, and tortured porters deemed to break the harsh rules.
This is not a recent phenomenon, but a routine practice by the Myanmar military.
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In short, the optimism of post-election reforms does not extend to the conflict zones, which demonstrates not just the disregard of the military to its own citizens, but is also reflective of the lack of new thinking by the central government in dealing with ethnic disunity. Eyes open engagement Steinberg is asking for people to wait and see what comes of the new government, and hope for positive change to blossom.
But proponents of a commission of inquiry know that abuses are occurring, and an inquiry is one proposal to seek an end to them. Sanctions are not working, and will never work on their own, but can be made more effective if the sanctioning countries coordinate and calibrate their efforts. Neither sanctions nor justice are being used as threats against the new government, and if Steinberg seriously believes they are being wielded as destructive tools then he is not paying much attention to the real messages he so easily distorts.
Steinberg argues that outsiders do not have a moral right to tell Myanmar citizens to rise up to resist the regime. And he's right. We don't. But outsiders also don't have a right to tell the country's citizens, as Steinberg does, that their "immediate well-being In other words, that they should accept the injustice they face in their daily lives and their disenfranchisement from politics, and focus instead on improving their material well being, which the new government might be willing to allow, rather than confronting the government in ways that bring a violent response.
This is a choice that some people in Myanmar will make, of course. And we should not judge them for it. But a great many others would be profoundly offended to hear a foreigner tell them that they should choose bread over freedom. As would most South Africans under apartheid, Poles under communism, French citizens under the Vichy government, and so on and so on.
What Steinberg doesn't understand is human nature. People don't want to live the way the government makes people live in Myanmar. They value their dignity, not just their material well being.
Related The Other Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle without Arms (AsiaWorld)
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