Back­slid­ing in Burma

Af­ter years of press­ing for demo­cratic re­form, Congress can’t sit idly by.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUN­DAY OPIN­ION -

As a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, Aung San Suu Kyi re­lied on the ex­iled tele­vi­sion sta­tion Demo­cratic Voice of Burma and magazine Ir­rawaddy to tell her story. But in June, her gov­ern­ment ar­rested three re­porters from th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions af­ter they cov­ered an eth­nic in­sur­gency in Shan state. They have been charged un­der the Un­law­ful As­so­ci­a­tions Act — a law that was used by the mil­i­tary junta to silence crit­ics — and could face up to three years in prison. The ar­rests are a sign that, though mil­i­tary rule in Burma of­fi­cially ended in 2011, the le­gacy of re­pres­sion lives on.

Burma’s new gov­ern­ment is no stranger to al­le­ga­tions of hu­man rights abuses. Its scorched-earth cam­paign against Ro­hingya Mus­lims in Rakhine state led to re­ports of tor­ture, mass rape and ex­tra­ju­di­cial killing, forc­ing 65,000 civil­ians to es­cape to Bangladesh. Many other mem­bers of that mi­nor­ity peo­ple live in squalid camps with lit­tle or no ac­cess to humanitarian aid. Most re­cently, the World Food Pro­gram an­nounced that thou­sands of Ro­hingya chil­dren are suf­fer­ing from acute mal­nu­tri­tion be­cause of the gov­ern­ment’s ar­bi­trary re­stric­tions on move­ment.

Now, a new re­port from Amnesty In­ter­na­tional shows that the vi­o­la­tions ex­tend well be­yond Rakhine state. Civil­ians in the coun­try’s Kachin and north­ern Shan states have re­port­edly been tor­tured, ab­ducted, ar­rested and sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted by mil­i­tary forces. Re­searchers also iden­ti­fied a culture of im­punity among gov­ern­ment troops. While eth­nic mi­nori­ties have faced the most per­se­cu­tion, the im­pris­on­ment of the three re­porters in Shan state sug­gests that not even the in­de­pen­dent me­dia — Aung San Suu Kyi’s erst­while ally — is safe.

In the face of th­ese al­le­ga­tions, Aung San Suu Kyi has re­mained largely silent. She re­jected the ne­ces­sity of a U.N. fact-find­ing mis­sion, how­ever, and claimed that it could cre­ate “greater hos­til­ity be­tween the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties.” It is hard to imag­ine how this could be pos­si­ble. She may be wary of alien­at­ing the coun­try’s mil­i­tary lead­ers — who are guar­an­teed by the con­sti­tu­tion one quar­ter of the seats in par­lia­ment, key cab­i­net po­si­tions and con­trol of the armed forces — but she should not stand in the way of an in­ter­na­tional mis­sion.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion en­cour­aged de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion in Burma, also known as Myan­mar, but was too quick to claim vic­tory. Congress and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion have an op­por­tu­nity to re­cal­i­brate and play a use­ful role. U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Nikki Ha­ley made an en­cour­ag­ing start on July 10, when she called on Burma to is­sue visas to the three-per­son in­ves­tiga­tive team. This is a cru­cial step, but it will yield re­sults only if it is part of a broader strat­egy. As Congress weighs ex­pand­ing U.S. mil­i­tary en­gage­ment with Burma, it should con­sider at­tach­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing a vet­ting process to ensure that hu­man rights vi­o­la­tors do not be­come part­ners. Af­ter years of en­cour­ag­ing demo­cratic re­form in Burma, Congress should not sit by as things move in the wrong di­rec­tion.

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