The Slippery Slope that is Sanctions

By Bo Kyi 4 June 2012

There is a great concern that the premature suspension of economic sanctions on Burma gives the green light for Naypyidaw to continue to neglect serious human rights and humanitarian concerns with no encouragement to embark on true human rights reform.

By suspending the majority of sanctions, nations including the United States, Norway, Australia, EU member states and the UK have rewarded a government that demonstrably continues to violate international human rights law to this day.

The government of Burma continues to hold hundreds of political prisoners behind bars, is directly responsible for breaking fragile ceasefire agreements, and is fueling civil wars in ethnic minority areas. Less than a month after the suspension of sanctions, the government of Burma was accused by Amnesty International of committing crimes against humanity for its central role in using rape as a tactic of war, using porters as minesweepers, and employing forced labor.

Ko Bo Kyi
Ko Bo Kyi

The indefinite suspension of sanctions, carried out with full knowledge that key benchmarks have not been met, is the beginning of a dangerous and slippery slope for human rights in Burma.

The initial benchmarks for lifting sanctions, which include the unconditional release of all political prisoners and genuine ceasefire negotiations, are far from being met:

  • The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB) has verified that at least 469 political prisoners remain behind bars in cruel and degrading conditions. Two political prisoners have died since December 2011 directly due to torture and persistent medical negligence by prison authorities, and AAPPB has called for the release of three more who face imminent threats to their lives due to adverse prison conditions. Also, the release of political prisoners on Jan. 13 was in no way unconditional, and those released are vulnerable to being rearrested and made to serve the remainder of their sentences—that often exceed 65 years—according to an obscure section of the law the releases were authorized under.
  • The situation in Kachin state has been at a crisis-level ever since a ceasefire was broken in June 2011. The Burmese military has completely ignored calls made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to end hostilities, and instead, has embarked on a long list of war atrocities that include targeting civilians by razing villages, torturing villagers, raping women, forcible conscription of children, and pillaging properties. At least 75,000 Kachin have been displaced due to the war. These abuses are ongoing.

If sanctions are suspended in such a horrible environment for human rights, then when, if ever, would sanctions be put back in place?

So far, not one nation has outlined conditions that would warrant sanctions being reinstated, a crucial oversight that may alter the course of Burma’s budding reform process for the worse.

For the threat of sanctions to have any teeth, nations must waste no time in setting clearly defined benchmarks with a timeline. If Burma, for example, fails to release political prisoners by a certain date, there should be no delay in restoring sanctions. The risk that Burma will backslide on commitments to improve the human rights situation is too high to take.

The people of Burma, hungry for democracy and human rights, have recently been testing the so-called reforms that prompted the suspension of sanctions in the first place, by cautiously exercising universal freedoms.

These tests range from rural villagers refusing to be forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for large-scale development projects to thousands of people peacefully marching in the streets with candles to protest chronic electricity shortages. All have been met with stiff and often violent resistance. For example, five peaceful protesters were brutally beaten and arrested in broad daylight by 80 policemen on May 24. It is clear that the mentality of the government has not changed: violence, not the law, is the main authority in Burma.

Of great concern are those who are farthest from the reach of the law and international attention: the farmers, villagers and local inhabitants of ethnic minority areas—where the majority of Burma’s natural resources are located.

Already AAPPB has seen an alarming spike in detentions; in March, at least 46 individuals were detained by state authorities. The majority were detained in relation to openly criticizing or protesting development projects that have affected their livelihoods. This is the highest number of detentions in over two years, when Burma was still under military rule.

These detentions, and other development-related human rights violations, are facilitated by the misrule of law in Burma and the culture of impunity. There has been no true legal reform—laws notorious for directly violating international standards are still on the books and actively used.

There is a real fear that increased economic engagement with Burma will lead to an increase in major development projects that will result in an escalation of human rights violations committed against local inhabitants.

Burma has an appalling track record of human rights violations fueled by large-scale development projects. For example, a gas project in the Yadana area has resulted in serious human rights abuses committed by the project’s security forces, including rape, murder, torture, forced labor, and land confiscations for over two decades. This case is not uncommon, it has been well documented that mega-development projects use Burmese army soldiers as guards who commit wanton abuses against local villagers.

The pressure of sanctions has had a proven effect in sparking a process of reform in Burma. It is the only tool the international community has to ensure Burma stays on the road to democracy and human rights. Now that sanctions have been suspended, the bar on human rights and democratic reform must be raised. The first step is outlining key benchmarks with a timeline.

To encourage true human rights reform and begin building a more just Burma, all countries that have suspended sanctions on Burma must create benchmarks that include:

  • A clear timeframe for the unconditional release of political prisoners, along with a complete wiping of their criminal records.
  • Genuine ceasefire agreements with a timetable to end civil war in all parts of Burma.

Burma’s emergence from international isolation must not come at the suffering of the people of Burma. By ensuring increased engagement with Burma centers on human rights and accountability, key international partners have the power to stop human rights abuses and put an end the vicious cycle of impunity. We deserve nothing less.

Bo Kyi is the joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, which is based in Mae Sot, Thailand. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect editorial policy of The Irrawaddy.