May Sabe Phyu is a human rights activist from Burma. She recently graduated from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
While the United States debates reimposing targeted sanctions on top military leaders in Burma, much of the focus is on the heart-rending Rohingya crisis.
But military aggression has escalated recently against the Kachin, an ethnic minority in the north. The Kachin have suffered systemic discrimination for more than six decades. As a citizen of both Burmese and Kachin ethnicity who grew up in this conflict area, I strongly support the calls in Rep. Eliot Engel’s (D-N.Y.) bill for financial and travel sanctions against individuals directly implicated in the violence against civilians.
I want my country to be a prosperous, liberal democratic society. I don’t want to go back to the policy of isolation and disengagement that the West favored in the past, nor allow the Burmese military to get away with persecuting, killing and expelling the country’s ethnic minorities.
In early April, thousands of civilians were unable to leave conflict-affected areas in Kachin State, trapped in the middle of clashes without enough food or secure shelters after more vicious attacks by the military. More than 60 percent of the trapped civilians are women and children.
The military remains all powerful. Protests by young people all over the country have called for the government to rescue those displaced in Kachin, but the armed forces have refused. The military’s leading commander in northern Burma stopped civil society leaders’ efforts to assist the trapped civilians. Currently, churches, monasteries and existing camps for internally displaced people are housing an additional 7,000 Kachins who have fled the military’s recent assault.
The Rohingya crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Similar patterns of violations suffered for decades by other ethnic minorities have received little international attention because of the limited media access. These violations of basic human rights and attacks against civilians are ongoing and demand urgent attention from the international community. With the current humanitarian crisis in Kachin and Northern Shan states, I wonder what options we have for our future. I feel helpless. Sometimes I wonder: Is there any way out for Burma? Can we escape from the shadow of the brutal Burmese army?
For a long-isolated country, President Barack Obama’s historic visit in November 2012, the first by a U.S. president, was a propitious moment. I was very optimistic, and in that moment, I shared a democracy dream with more than 51 million people in our country.
Obama’s foreign policy on Burma helped the country in some ways, for instance by encouraging open elections in 2015, which eventually saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi sidestep constitutional barriers and become head of a civilian government with limited powers. Peace talks started between some ethnic armed groups, which resulted in nationwide ceasefire negotiations, and thousands of political prisoners were released.
But weighed against those signs of reform are the horrific treatment of the Rohingya, vicious human rights abuses in ethnic Kachin areas (including the use of rape as a weapon of war and forcing civilians to be human shields) and restrictions on freedom of speech in media and civil society.
The peace process has stalled amid renewed military attacks against ethnic communities, which has included aerial bombing and direct mortar shelling of civilian villages, while humanitarian access to those who are in urgent need has been blocked. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs‘ 2018 humanitarian needs overview, more than 200,000 displaced people (of which 77 percent are women and children) remain in camps or camplike situations all over the country.
Human rights groups and Kachin activists have recently called for the United Nations to refer Burma to the International Criminal Court, and the United States and European Union have started talking about reintroducing targeted sanctions. Both of these steps could help. Impunity only encourages the Burmese military to continue its atrocities. Instead of passively witnessing another genocide, the international community must be proactive in taking preventative measures to save lives.
When the United States rolled back sanctions in late 2016, Burma reversed the pace of reform. I shared the opinion of many human rights groups that lifting sanctions was premature. The removal of political pressure too early allowed the perpetrators to breathe after being suffocated for so long. Now the United States must fix that. A genuine transition to democracy with all the benefits of rule of law and the freedom of assembly, movement, expression, human rights and equality is long overdue.