revisiting constructive engagement: burma on the move?

Early yesterday, Western media sources reported a peace agreement between Burma’s central government and representatives of the Karen National Union, the primary insurgency and local governance authority in Burma’s eastern Karen province. Since the controversial election of Burma’s civilian government last year, the country’s political development has progressed at a rapid pace. Just today, the Burmese regime announced the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including leading members of the opposition’s 1988 (8888) uprising. Western human rights organizations have tentatively applauded the prisoner release, which, due to the nature of the prisoners, appear to be a bit more sincere than the regime’s previous political theater. Within hours of the news, the U.S. State Department announced a path to normalization with the Burmese regime, starting with the deployment of an ambassador to Naypyidaw.

While Burma’s democratization process remains tentative, the Karen peace deal may prove to be a remarkable step forward for conflict resolution in the divided country. The KNU has waged a low-intensity campaign against the Burmese regime since 1949, marking the early demise of the recently-assassinated Aung San’s Panglong Agreement on ethnic minority political participation. The international community’s focus on Burma has centered on the democratization struggle, with media attention spiking during large-scale pro-democracy protests, periodic, cosmetic releases of Burma’s political prisoners, and infrequent diplomatic interactions with Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s internationally-lauded opposition leader.

The Karen conflict, meanwhile, has received very little attention, despite its ignoble status as the persistent epicenter of the Burmese regime’s mass atrocities. Forced displacement, frequent rates of sexual violence, and widespread extrajudicial killing have characterized the eastern region’s human rights crisis, which has occurred in the all-to-familiar context of SPDC (Burma’s military)-KNU conflict. Citing the UN’s Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, a 2009 Harvard International Human Rights Clinic report addressed the wider humanitarian crisis in Karen State and its surrounding provinces:

The Myanmar Rapporteur has documented a large number of extrajudicial killings by the military forces in 2002. The majority of victims were reportedly IDPs who were shot after being discovered by Tatmadaw soldiers. The Myanmar Rapporteur documented reports of egregious cases involving groups of individuals stated to have taken place in the Shan and Karen States. The reports also included cases of torture and arbitrary detention that appeared to indicate that the military has used these practices as a warning to others to follow orders. In most reported cases, the torture victims were accused of being supporters of armed elements of ethnic nationality groups.

The release of Burma’s political prisoners is a symbolically significant effort, essential to effective political reconciliation between Burma’s civilian government and the pro-democracy opposition. However, the real challenge to Burma’s democratization will stem from the regime’s effort to negotiate a political settlement with Burma’s ethnic minority groups. The Karen conflict is a microcosm of a wider issue–Burma’s central government, interested in consolidating political authority and access to the border regions’ natural resource wealth, prefers a Naypyidaw-based, centralized government, while minority opposition groups prefer a federalized system. Even during Burma’s post-independence, parliamentary democracy era (1948 – 1962), minority insurgencies posed an unavoidable threat to the stability, security, and legitimacy of Burma’s central government.

After decades of marginalization by Rangoon/Naypyidaw, minority leadership appears to have little faith in the credibility of the government’s political outreach. The Burmese military continues to conduct operations in Burma’s northern Kachin state, causing instability and population displacement. As Indiana University’s David Williams wrote in an edition on “designing federalism” in Burma, the sustainability of political trust, reconciliation, and security relies on the delicate balance between cohesive, multi-ethnic governance and cultural, political, and economic autonomy for Burma’s ethnic minority groups.

If the regime makes tangible progress towards reconciliation with ethnic minority groups, Burma’s gradual emergence may prove a replicable case study for successful “constructive engagement,” a concept much belittled by human rights advocates throughout the 1990s. In contrast to, say, U.S. Sudan policy, the United States and the international community pursued a clear, transparent, and accountable diplomatic process with Burma’s military government, successfully ferrying a transition to civilian rule. The international community’s constructive engagement policies indicate the diplomatic value of compromise–rather than allowing Burma’s illegitimate elections to serve as a barrier to successful engagement, the United States, ASEAN, and other relevant stakeholders provided a clear roadmap for the country’s new civilian authorities, as well as clear incentives for cooperation and continued dialogue. U.S. engagement in an emerging Burma possesses clear strategic benefits, between increased access to natural resources, a credible buffer against China’s regional dominance, and potentially heightened levels of regional stability (fewer cross-border migrations from Burma’s ethnic minority regions, in particular). However, U.S. diplomatic compromises may also underline a resounding human rights victory, allowing for the long-awaited resolution of political abuse, violent conflict, and minority marginalization.

Update: Since the prisoner release and the U.S. government’s subsequent normalization pledge, various bloggers and human rights advocates have offered more skeptical perspectives on Burma’s reform prospects. Daniel Serwer, at Peacefare, offered a couple of critical questions on the Burmese generals’ political intentions, noting the cyclical trend in prisoner releases:

Still, it is not clear how far the Burmese generals intend things to go.  Are they opening up the system in a way that will lead to their own loss of power?  Or is this an effort to open a restricted space for civilian political competition and governance, with the generals keeping at least control of security and foreign policy?  How will they react to efforts to establish accountability for past abuses of human rights?  What if it proves difficult to extend the ceasefire with the Karen and other ethnic groups into political settlements?  Some of the political prisoners released yesterday had been released years ago, only to be re-arrested.  Could it happen again?

Similarly, Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, a London-based Burma activist and daughter of 8888 Uprising leader Mya Aye, noted the Burmese regime’s penchant for backsliding on their reform commitments:

Some people are now arguing that the release of these political prisoners is proof that there is genuine reform in Burma, and that sanctions should now be lifted. I ask them to remember that in mid-2007 there were around a thousand political prisoners in Burma. This was considered unacceptable, and the European Union, US, Canada, and Australia were debating whether to increase sanctions. Following the uprising in late 2007 the number of political prisoners almost doubled. My father was one of those jailed. Now, after all the excitement about these releases, there are still possibly around a thousand political prisoners in Burma’s jails. Compared to the situation last year, it looks like we have come a long way. Compared to the situation five years ago, it looks like we have stood still.

Meanwhile, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a leading Burmese pro-democracy advocacy group, re-cast the news of the prisoner release, observing the continued incarceration of ethnic minority opposition leadership:

But human rights award-wining Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) calls the exclusion of members of the ethnic armed groups damaging to the prospect of national reconciliation in Burma. The group says that by their count around 1000 political prisoners remain in Burmese jails and that the latest amnesty is both selective and discriminatory.

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