PSPD in English Int. Solidarity 2013-01-31   5266

[Column] Burma’s trouble democratic Transitions

Burma’s trouble democratic Transitions 

By Cheery Zahau (Chin Human Rights Defender)

My first trip to Burma was in October 2012 after 14 years of not being officially in Burma. I was excited, nervous and so eager to see what the reforms mean to the people who I have advocated for many years. Burma’s reforms are carried out top-down approach. The government decides the areas for reforms, some have welcoming such as release of political prisoners, easing media restriction which was heavily controlled by the State over decades and allowing civilians lead campaigns such as demonstrations and other public actions.  These reforms excite the international communities and I am encouraged to see these reforms. 

I wanted to visit Chin State, Burma’s poorest and the most neglected State located in North-western part of Burma.  Secondly, I hope to see Kachin State where the government troops have heavily attacked the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) and its army wing, Kachin Independent Army (KIA).
So, I embarked my journey via Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, from Bangkok, Thailand where I currently live. In Rangoon, things seem running normal. I could see people who are “politically oriented” discuss their political perspectives and express their views on the current reforms. There are people contending with the current political process, particularly delighted that NLD’s won 43 seats in the by-election held on 1st April 2012. 
However, I knew that I needed to see what Chin people have seen and experienced and so does Kachin people. I continued my journey to Falam town, Chin State. I met several community leaders who expressed that the reforms have not reached them. Many Chin community leaders are still afraid of the authorities because of their past experiences with the repressive authorities. Citizens are still under the absolute control of the authorities in their social and political lives.  The ‘culture of fear’ has not changed at all in the Chin State. The reasons are firstly, none of the authorities are being held accountable when they abuse their power, financially corrupt and even violate any form of human rights. Secondly, the ordinary people are not aware of their civil and political rights. The community representatives expressed to me that they need a lot of political awareness.
Throughout over ten years at India-Burma border, I went back to Chin State on many occasions to give trainings to community leaders on human rights, democracy, gender issues and leadership skills, to deliver humanitarian assistances to the most forgotten Chin communities inside Burma, to document abuses by the government military troops and to bring media attention to shine the light so that anyone interested in Burma is aware of what is happening to the Chin people. During my trip to Chin State, I learned that more works should be done to empower Chin people’ socio-economical and political perspectives. 
After spending several days with the Chin communities, I continued my journey to Myitkyina, Kachin State. My friends showed me three Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Here, I saw helplessness, uncertainty, frustration, distrust and hopelessness. I met several people who fled from the fighting in their own villages; most of them told me that the Burma military army attacked their villages without due diligence warning. It seems to me that the Burma military army itself forgets their international obligation to protect the civilians who are not engaged in war. Let’s not forget that Burma ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1992, which stipulates that the military army should be trained on how to conduct in warfare and minimize any harm to civilians. I witnessed that the government army has failed to oblige one of the core international humanitarian laws in their warfare conducts with the KIA. 
I met a 45-year old man who told me that he will never go back his village because he has seen his village being destroyed by the Burma army already three times his life-time. He furiously told me “why should I go back? Every time we rebuild our homes and communities, the Burma army destroyed. We have nothing left. Why do we have to run for our lives again and again? Even if the fighting stops and we are able to go back, we are not sure when they will come back again and destroy our communities”. Many displaced persons in the camp agreed with him. However, their futures are uncertain in a big city like Myitkyina. They all shared the same worries. One woman expressed to me “there are no help from the government to rebuild our lives in Myitchina or nearby places where we feel safe. We know how to farm but we don’t know other livelihood skills. We could get stuck in the camps like this for a long-time”. 
I met a 13-year old boy who stepped on a landmine on his way back to home from farms. Before escaping from their village, the teenage boy, his father and his nine-year old brother went to their farms to collect some food. On their way home, the boy stepped on the landmine and the mine exploded. It hit his eyes and he lost his eyesight. The father was injured and the explosions affected the boy’s skin. Now, he has to bear green spots on his skins and the doctors could not diagnosis what the problem is. After few days of walking through the jungle, they arrived in Myitkyina hospital. These are the countless stories of people who are caught up in this terrible war. 
The Burma military troops continue its heavier attacks on KIO/A military outposts since Christmas Eve in 2012 and it continues until today (28.01.2013). It was obviously after the reform. Many civilians are severely inquired about their hiding places. The military troops used heavy weapons including artillery, helicopters, mortars bombs. Out of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, the Conventions No I, III and IV are relevant to this situation and the two parties, in this case Burma military army and the KIA troops, are responsible to follow these Conventions.  According to the Conventions, ill-treatment of war prisoners are prohibited, immediate medical care by international bodies, particularly the International Committee of Red Cross, should be allowed, and civilians should remain under the protection and principles of international laws. The Burmese government shrewdly refused to ratify Protocol Additional-1977 relating on the protection of victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts in order to avoid any serious punishment for committed crimes . The principles of humanitarian laws are not respected at all in this war and there is international debate about whether this is a just-war or not. 
Despite the international overly praises toward the President Thein Sein and charm of Daw Aung Suu Kyi that the international community fell in love with, the dark side of the military remains as before, especially for ethnic nationals. For instance, the President office issues a statement ordering a ceasefire with the KIA on 20 January and yet, the army ignores his order , which indicates the army acts as if it is above the laws. This culture of impunity is prevalent in Burma and it seems no one, including the President, can stop it. 


▲ 아웅산 수치. ⓒ프레시안(최형락)

During my second visit to Burma in early January 2013, I witnessed the frustration of people in Rangoon over Daw Aung Suu Kyi for her peculiar silence over the fighting at the border. For decades, the people in Burma have believed her words are divine and her political stances are the northern star to guide Burma. Not this time with the Kachin war. As one ethnic community organizer expressed “we have been waiting for a true national leader to bring a lasting peace, genuine federalism and equality. Now, we lost our hope on Daw Suu and it seems like we will never have a true leader that we had expected for so long”. My trip experiences to Burma taught me that Burma’s transition to democracy is still troublesome. In fact, it is worrisome and let’s be frank on this. It is not appropriate to overly excite about the surface reforms especially if you remember of the people in the war-zone Kachin State and utterly neglected Chin people”. 

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