Now is not the time to soften our position on human rights in Burma, but a time when pressure is crucial in order to achieve the change for which people in Burma have struggled for so long.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced on Monday 26 March that Australia will reward steps towards democracy by withdrawing sanctions on Burma. He said this will happen "stage by stage as the government in [Burma] introduces democracy stage by stage."
Burma activists such as myself and human rights groups in Australia are concerned that lifting sanctions too early will delay and potentially damage political reform and improvements to the country’s dire human rights situation.
As of 27 March, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), between 493 and 852 political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma for expressing their support for democracy. Draconian laws remain and those released earlier in the year are at threat of re-incarceration at any time.
And then of course there’s the army. The army that continues to target ethnic civilians, commits horrendous human rights abuses, rapes women and forces tens of thousands to flee their homelands. Over 75,000 ethnic Kachin have been displaced since June 2011, after this new quasi-civilian government came into power.
Burmese President Thein Sein points to the supposedly free and fair by-election to be held on 1 April as proof of his democratic reform. His mantra is that this election warrants the removal of sanctions, particularly given Aung San Suu Kyi is running.
The reality is that the bulk of laws and regulations that govern Burma’s electoral process are the same as those that applied in the 2010 elections that Australia and the rest of the world declared a sham. The Electoral Commission is not impartial or independent and along with the authorities, has repeatedly obstructed the campaign activities of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. In addition, over 200,000 voters in Kachin State have been disenfranchised.
The regime’s eleventh hour decision to invite external election monitors is a public relations ploy that is too little, too late to ensure adequate, effective, and independent monitoring of the electoral process. Furthermore the regime is hand-picking monitors and has refused to accept two of the five Australian MPs nominated to observe the by-elections, Liberal Mathias Cormann and Labor’s Janelle Saffin.
Even more important, regardless of how the election is run and whether Aung San Suu Kyi wins a seat, there are still hundreds of elephants in the room. Political prisoners. People jailed for having political opinions while an election is held. How can we see the 1 April by-election in Burma as an indicator of democracy when hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars?
Australia maintains visa bans, targeted financial sanctions on key individuals and an embargo against the Burmese military. In early January Burma activists in Australia condemned the government’s decision to remove sanctions placed on some former ministers and deputy ministers of the military junta. Premature easing of sanctions sends the wrong message, pure and simple.
If Carr rushes to remove remaining sanctions too early, why would political prisoners be released? Why would the number of political prisoners not rise again? Why would soldiers stop their assaults against ethnic groups such as the Kachin, given their history of brutality and racism? Why would the notoriously bad human rights situation improve? Why would elections ever be held again?
Sanctions are a vital tool in giving us the negotiating power we have to support the people of Burma in their struggle for democracy. In order to remove them we have to know that real and demonstrable change is happening in Burma.
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