Freedom in Burma has declined.
According to the most recent Freedom in the World report, Burma is one of seven nations in the Asia Pacific region (including China, North Korea and Vietnam) ranked “not free.” It’s the first time the country (also known as Myanmar) has been downgraded from “partly free” since the civilian government took power in 2011. Reasons for Burma’s decline include worsening conflicts between the military and ethnic minority rebel groups that have reduced freedom of movement in the country, according to Freedom House, a human rights defense organization.
Peace-building has been the civilian government’s top priority since Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy took office in 2016. Four years later, however, people in Burma are still suffering from ongoing ethnic conflicts.
Burma has more than 135 ethnic groups; achieving peace among them has been a constant struggle. In the country’s south, the world’s longest ongoing civil war has been waged between Karen armed groups and Burma’s military. In the north, Kachin ethnic armed forces battle the military for control of the region’s rich natural resources. In the west, more than 730,000 Rohingya – a Muslim minority – were forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh to escape what many international organizations label military-led ethnic cleansing.
Complicating matters further, Burma’s military – the Tatmadaw – is the country’s most powerful political and economic actor. In politics, it uses constitutionally guaranteed powers to control key ministries and one-fourth of the seats in parliament. In the economy, it dominates a wide range of industries, including banking, mining, tourism, construction and gas.
Recently, the military has used the COVID-19 pandemic to showcase its ability and capacity to lead the country in difficult times. In April, the military collectively donated more than $1.6 million and opened COVID-19 quarantine centers to accommodate thousands of people. This is problematic because the Tatmadaw uses its influence and wealth to obstruct constitutional reform, hinder the development of democratic institutions and continue a culture of financial corruption.
Given these examples of armed conflict, discrimination and unchecked military power, the United States can and should play a stronger role in peace-building and reconciliation. In doing so, America would also be making a commitment to reversing Burma’s democratic slide. A critical first step is pushing for greater civilian control of Burma’s military so that it’s accountable to the people and subject to the rule of law.
Congress can pressure the Tatmadaw by passing legislation that sanctions a broader list of military officials involved in human rights and their business violations by denying such individuals and their families’ visas, and imposing property-blocking sanctions against them.
Besides Congress, the administration should work with regional allies, especially the ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea to encourage peace and reconciliation efforts that respect human rights and the rule of law.
Such a coordinated, diplomatic response (possibly through sanctions) would send a strong message to the Tatmadaw that human rights abuses against vulnerable communities will be met with consequences.
Beyond the military, the United States should use high-level dialogue to pressure Suu Kyi and her NLD government to respect essential elements of democracy.
To show their seriousness, the US and its allies might consider redirecting government to government development aid until Burma demonstrates improvement in respecting these essential elements of democracy.
Lastly, the United States should continue to invest in Burma’s civil society-led peace-building and reconciliation efforts. Burma’s civil society needs capacity building to increase organizational impact and financial support to continue their good work.
For decades, Burma’s people have fought for their freedom and their right to participate fully in society. Over the same time, the United States has made protecting freedom and nurturing democracy around the world an essential part of its foreign policy.
It’s only natural then that these two countries work together to put Burma’s democratic transition back on a positive trajectory. Together, they can make Burma (at least partly) free again.
Jieun Pyun serves as senior program manager of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.