Pressure and Pragmatism in Burma

By Simon Roughneen 8 February 2013

SINGAPORE — Under increasing international criticism over the civil war in Kachin State, Burma’s government has sought to refocus attention on the reformist narrative that has dominated international coverage since President Thein Sein took office almost two years ago.

Recent moves such as pledging to allow international aid to civilians in territory held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), acknowledging the existence of political prisoners and hinting that it is open to reforming the country’s Constitution, are being welcomed, despite seeming like belated concessions.

“Political prisoners should never have been in jail in the first place,” said lobby group Burma Campaign UK on Feb. 7.

It seems that the Burmese government has decided that it is in its best interests to make such concessions now.

Renewed peace talks between the government and the KIA came after the army advanced closer to KIA headquarters on the Burma-China border, meaning the government negotiated from a stronger military position. That said, some observers speculate that the military’s success has come at a high cost in terms of money and casualties—as well as heightened distrust of the government among other ethnic minority militias.

The government might want to quit while its ahead in Kachin State. Storming Laiza, the KIA base, would cost the Burmese army in lives and money and result in thousands of refugees fleeing to China, damaging relations with Beijing.

The government’s Feb. 7 announcement that it would set up a committee to examine how many political prisoners remain in prison was an equally pragmatic move, as President’s Office spokesperson Ye Htut told CNN.

“We cannot negotiate because of this term,” he said, referring to “political prisoners.” “That’s why President Thein Sein instructed to form this committee to find the definition.”

That admission suggests that if the stakes are high enough for the Burma government, it could relent on other human rights issues, though it is not clear if the political prisoner wording was in any way a hindrance to the negotiations that in late January saw Burma relieved of around US $6 billion in debt—60 percent of the money it owes—by Western countries and Japan.

During military rule, Burma held up to 2,000 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, but the government refused to acknowledge such a category, labeling all prisoners as criminals.

After acknowledging the existence of political prisoners, pressure could mount on Burma’s government to recognize the existence of the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by a 1982 law and who human rights groups have long described as oppressed.

Doctors Without Borders, an international non-governmental organization that provides medical treatment to people affected by war or disaster, says that the Burmese government is blocking its work in Arakan State, effectively denying aid to tens of thousands of Rohingya displaced by violence in the region.

There are signs that other countries in the region are tiring of having to deal with the fall-out from human rights abuses in Burma.

The Thai government says over 6,000 Rohingya have fled to Thailand since a second round of ethnic and sectarian clashes in Arakan last October. Discussing the Rohingya influx, Dittaporn Sasamit, a spokesman for Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command, said that “the Foreign Ministry is negotiating with other countries to take them on and is seeking [Burmese] citizenship papers for them so they can move on,” he said.

Pressure on Burma’s government to grant citizenship to at least some of the 800,000 or so Rohingyas has been increasing in recent months, though whether backing Naypyidaw into a corner over this issue would result in some sort of belated recognition of status, along the lines of political prisoners, is unclear.

Many of Burma’s political prisoners are regarded as heroes for standing up to the military regime, and have assumed prominent public profiles since their release, while the Rohingya are widely described as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In another signal of regional distaste for Burmese government policy toward the Rohingya, Indonesian hackers briefly took down a government website earlier this week, saying “We call on the government of Myanmar to stop the violence and the expulsion against Rohingya based on humanitarian.”