THE ROUTE TO REFORM: HOW BURMA CAN MODERNIZE HUMAN RIGHTS

By Lauren Freidenberg
Contributing Writer

The authoritarian military regime that controlled Burma for over 50 years has made cosmetic reforms to appease international critics. The transformation from regime rule to a civilian government is a façade and cannot be accepted as a genuine embracement of international human rights norms. The establishment of the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC) in 1988 allowed the repressive junta to maintain strict control of the region through martial law and violent means to prevent protests and social mobilization (Shock, 1999). Shallow modifications to government policies or erections of committees, such as the Peasant’s Council, which is supposed to represent the underprivileged sector of agriculturalists, are strategic actions by the regime to divert attention from the reality of economic deterioration and extreme social repression while attempting to gain approval from the poor population who make up the vast majority of Burma (Alamgir, 1997).

International sanctions have been placed on Burma by the United States and other Western powers after students, monks and other activists were violently attacked during a peaceful demonstration (Alamgir, 1997). SLORC held the first multi-party election in 1990 after almost three decades of a forced military-socialist national party in order to quiet protestors and gain acceptance from international actors (Shock, 1999). The National League for Democracy (NLD), founded by the Burmese human rights and democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. This unexpected victory for the NLD was immediately silenced; SLORC refused to acknowledge the results and intensified the violent repression on protestors and national-party dissidents (Brooten, 2005).

Burma’s junta was officially disbanded in 2011 with a transition to a civilian government consisting of a cabinet and Parliament of military appointees and few civilian representatives (San Wai, 2011). Restrictions on media and state propaganda still persist. The release of political prisoners is a tactical concession strategy and the quasi-civilian government has yet to make any substantial steps towards implementation of human rights policies (The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, 2011). The brutally violent and excessive human rights violations that Burma has suffered in its past cannot be forgotten. Prevention of regression back to state repression must be at the top of international human rights advocacy network and policy agenda.

Economic sanctions are a common international mechanism of foreign policy to coerce target states into acquiescing to the transformation of current repressive policies into adopting human rights norms and democratic institutions (Wood, 2008). The Clinton administration instituted a sanction in 2003, which put a ban on the importation of goods produced in Burma, which was continued throughout the Bush administration (Brootan, 2005). However, the implementation of these sanctions by the United States and other Western powers has proven to be ineffective (Brootan, 2005). Burma isolated itself from international trade through the socialist economic policies enacted through state controlled industrial production, leaving only the agricultural sector free from nationalization (Alamgir, 1997).

Pressure from the international community only facilitated cosmetic reforms, such as creating the People’s Assembly, which was only a public relations scheme to give pseudo-power to Burmese laborers (Alamgir, 1997). The isolation from international trade coupled with the economic sanctions placed on the region by Western powers exacerbated the nation’s economic deterioration (Wood, 2008). Opposition to the regime intensified as shortages in food and the turmoil of the economy began to grow. Indeed, an increase in dissident citizens led to an increase in state repression (Wood, 2008). No doubt, sparking more violence is counterproductive to the goals of the economic sanctions. With no domestic non-governmental organizations within the Burmese borders, no transnational social networks were able to be formed to gain leverage over Burma’s junta or spread international awareness (Shock, 1999).

Instead, the strategies behind Burma’s structural sources of authoritarianism and resistance to global democratization by the military regime should be the focal point of policy design (Alamgir, 1997). The censorship of media and indoctrination of nationalist and socialist policies prevented mass mobilization and the ability for Burmese citizens to gain access to human rights and establish international alliances (Shock, 1999). The isolation from foreign ties, driven by the actions of the Burmese government, strengthened the junta’s ability to maintain suppression of the state. Burma’s military regime isolated itself in order to not be affected by international pressures and an approach of constructive engagement must now ensue.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rejected the Western pleas to impose sanctions claiming that interaction by divestment is a violation of state sovereignty and an intervention of internal affairs (Alamgir, 1997). ASEAN advocates for a constructive engagement approach that draws on negotiations rather than external mobilization and pressure that will not affect an isolated nation (Alamgir, 1997). In addition to constructive negotiation, Human Rights Watch promotes pressure to continue to bring international attention to the issue, which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) can readily do.

One of the main goals of the OHCHR is to mainstream human rights violations; Burma is a prime example of how tactical concessions are insufficient to please nations and organizations who are fighting for human rights policy integration and acceptance of these norms. Burma can demonstrate how international human rights protect against authoritarian powers. The new civilian government is attempting to transform the international label of a pariah state to democracy. Therefore, Burma is vulnerable and this is where OHCHR can commence effectual change. Through constructive engagement and continued mainstreaming of information, the civilian government will begin to embrace international human rights norms. Constant pressure and negotiations will bring about democratic change and give the Burmese people their inherent human rights back.

Works Cited

Alamgir, Jalal. “Against the Current: The Survival of Authoritarianism in Burma.” Pacific Affairs 70.3 (1997): 333-50. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. .

Associated Press in Naypyitaw. “Burma Junta Disbanded as ‘Civilian’ Government Sworn In.” The Guardian [United Kingdom] 30 Mar. 2011.

Brootan, Lisa. “The Feminization of Democracy under Siege: The Media, ‘The Lady’ of Burma, and U.S. Foreign Policy.” NWSA Journal 17.3 (2005): 134-56. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. .

San Wai, Kyaw. “Myanmar’s New ‘Civilian’ Government.” East Asia Forum- Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific [Nanyang] 7 June 2011.

Shock, Kurt. “People Power and Political Opportunities: Social Movement Mobilization and Outcomes in the Philippines and Burma.” Social Problems 46.3 (1999): 355-75. HeinOnline. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. .

United States. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The Southern Baptist Convention. Repression in Burma Noted by USCIRF Members. 2 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. .

Wood, Reed M. “’A Hand upon the Throat of the Nation’: Economic Sanctions and State Repression, 1976-2001.” International Studies Quarterly 52.3 (2008): 489-513. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. .

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