International Accountability? Questioning the Silence


thein-sein and suu kyi

On Monday, August 20, Burma announced its abolition of press censorship, marking the most recent reform in its efforts toward democratization. After years of receiving criticism for its human rights violations, the Burmese government has begun instituting reforms within its quasi-civilian state. This effort, along with the highly publicized release of Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2010 and the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) victory in the lower house of parliament in April, have left the international community hopeful about the country’s direction. The international media is following the government’s moves closely, and investors are flocking to what many are calling “Asia’s last frontier economy.” In the midst of hopefulness about the country’s democratization, however, there exists a raging civil war between the Burmese military and ethnic minority groups. While democratic reform and entrepreneurship develop in Burma’s center, its borders are throbbing with violent fighting, political instability, and human rights violations. How does this irony exist without being addressed? Why is the international community not screaming with outrage? Where is the media coverage on this pressing crisis?

As things improve in central Burma, they seem to worsen along its borders. While the media coverage of Burma’s central politics is booming, there remains little reporting on the fighting occurring in Kachin and Shan States. The fighting in Kachin State has become particularly aggressive, as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) refuses to sign a ceasefire with the Burmese government until valid negotiations are implemented. Their former ceasefire collapsed in June of last year, and fighting has been ongoing for the past 14 months.

While the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fights the Burmese Army’s offensive, innocent Kachin civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict as well. Extrajudicial killings, rape, and forced displacement by the Burmese Army have become widespread in Kachin State, resulting in a large population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), estimated at over 50,000. Many IDPs are living in camps within Kachin State, but the camps are overcrowded and afflicted by hunger, malnutrition, and lack of shelter. TB has broken out among the camps, but there exists a lack of medical supplies and clean water to treat the sick. Burmese Army soldiers enter the camps regularly, often interrogating, arresting, and even killing refugees suspected of being affiliated with the KIA. Over 10,000 refugees have sought asylum in China; however, Chinese authorities have begun sending them back, closing down refugee camps and threatening to turn IDPs over to the Burmese Army if they fail to leave. How do these atrocities continue with the international spotlight following Burma’s every move? Why have the UN and other prominent human rights agencies not intervened?

The UN has repeatedly claimed that its Burma envoys are advocating to gain access to the displaced people in Burma. According to UN representatives, they have had trouble reaching the IDPs in conflict areas because of restrictions by the Burmese government. In a recent visit assessing Burma’s democratic reform, Envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana stated, “The government and all armed groups must do more to ensure the protection of civilians during armed conflict." Little has been done, however, and the Burmese offensive against the KIA actually intensified after Quintana’s departure.  Physicians for Humanity, Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, and various other human rights agencies have voiced concerns over the country’s isolated refugees. Still, few have gained access to the camps, and the refugees remain in dire need of aid. Is it not the responsibility of human rights organizations to pursue and publicize human rights violations until they are resolved?

What is truly stopping the international community from intervening? Is it mere ignorance, stubbornness form the Burmese government, or a sheer unwillingness to get involved? The Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand (KWAT) has stated that the situation in Kachin State is being ignored because of the positive developments occurring in Burma. Could fellow nations truly poses such shallow motives—ignoring thousands of suffering people in order to preserve the feel-good bubble surrounding Burma’s current image? It seems that at this time—when the Burmese government has finally become receptive to democratic ideals—it would be relatively easy to negotiate with them and put an end to the mass human rights violations occurring within their borders.

Furthermore, why has the media so blatantly skirted the conflict zones in their coverage of Burma’s political developments? People across the world have taken enormous interest in the developments within Burma yet remain largely uninformed about—or even unaware of—the war occurring along its borders. The situation facing Kachin refugees is breaking news and would have millions of people interested and concerned. If the media were to focus on the atrocities in Kachin State, the Burmese government would be subject to international exposure and pressure—for Burma remains in a sensitive political situation, and the world is watching to make sure it continues its positive steps.

The globe is shrinking as we become connected by information; we no longer have excuses for ignorance, and it is our responsibility—as citizens, media, governments, and organizations—to address injustice within the world arena. As neighbors in the international community, we must incite awareness and action to end the deteriorating situation in Kachin State and other ethnic states within Burma.