And let’s not forget the passionate lobbying in the 1990s of U.S.A. Engage, a coalition of U.S. businesses eager to ensure that political repression in Burma did not end their business opportunities. They made the case then, as the Business Roundtable and its allies are making the case even today, that U.S. investment would “inevitably help lead to an improved human rights environment.” A few years later, a major U.S. oil investor, Unocal (now Chevron) was exposed for having used slave labor on its pipeline in Burma.
I would urge my former colleagues in the U.S. Congress to examine the facts clearly before taking any action. How much has really changed in Burma?
I spent Election Day not in Rangoon where most western reporters flocked, but in Kachin State where, according to Human Rights Watch, 75,000 men, women and children have been forced to flee their homes because of the Burmese army’s attacks. I saw evidence of this forced displacement first hand as I met victims who were literally running for their lives having abandoned their homes, farms and villages that were under attack by the military.
It was a heart-wrenching experience.
On the day of the election, I stood just beyond the range of the Burmese army’s mortar fire north of Laiza, a place that had been attacked the day before. We could see the Burmese army camp positioned on a hill across the valley. They had recently more than tripled their troop presence. Hundreds of soldiers occupied the hill and the valley floor below. Reinforcements were filling in from behind. Between where I stood and the Burmese troops was a literal gold mine. Mining operations had been suspended due to the fighting.
We met a farmer who had been harvesting corn with his wife and father-in-law when Burmese soldiers entered their field and ordered them to carry the harvest to a military encampment. They tried to escape the next morning. His wife was caught and he has had no word of her whereabouts – or safety – since.
The Burmese army has a long and brutal history of targeting ethnic minorities. They do it through direct violence—rape and killing—but also indirectly by destroying crops, livestock and preventing international humanitarian access. The stories we heard while on the ground in Kachin State indicate a clear targeting of civilians that shows no signs of abating.
Certainly progress has been made in Burma. The fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer in prison or under house arrest is a step forward. But the fact remains that for many – including the people I visited in Kachin State – nothing positive has happened at all. In fact, their suffering is getting worse by the day.
The United States should recognize progress and encourage reform in Burma but rewards and incentives must be measured, prudent and reversible. Progress in Burma has been made possible by economic and diplomatic pressure. It would be unconscionable for the United States and the world to condemn tens of thousands of innocent people to the mercy of a military government entirely free of the pressure of sanctions.
Tom H. Andrews is president of United to End Genocide.