11-30-2011By Crimes Against Humanity
Human Rights First
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarks on a historic visit to Burma this week, marking the first trip there by a U.S. secretary of state in over 50 years. Clinton’s trip will test Burma’s nascent political reforms and explore what the United States can do to support the country’s “flickers of progress” on human rights and national reconciliation. Any meaningful discussion on improving Burma’s human rights situation, however, must also address Burma’s complex relationship with China, which has enabled widespread and systematic human rights abuses across the country.
Burma’s human rights record is, in a word, abysmal. The ruling regime, the State and Peace Development Council (SPDC), is accused of committing crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, including widespread and systematic rape, destruction of villages, forced displacement, and forced labor. Burma uses an estimated 70,000 children – some as young as 11 – in its armed forces. And in 2007, the SPDC’s violent repression of peaceful protests resulted in numerous deaths and thousands of arrests, beatings, and accounts of torture in detention.
A long-time partner and staunch ally of Burma, China provides material and financial support to the SPDC. It is the leading supplier of weapons and military aid, furnishing the SPDC’s armed forces with over 90% of its weapons, according to Altsean-Burma. It is also Burma’s third-largest trading partner and relies on Burma for natural resources and access to extensive natural gas fields.
Moreover, China provides Burma with political and military support. In 2007, China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling on Burma to “cease military attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions and begin a substantive political dialogue that would lead to a genuine democratic transition.” And just this week – days ahead of Secretary Clinton’s visit – Chinese Vice President, and likely successor to President Hu Jintao, called for Burma to strengthen military ties with his country.
However, reforms in Burma this year indicate that Burmese leaders are reassessing their relationships with other Asian countries and seeking to break out of the country’s decades-long isolation. The government has freed some political prisoners, begun to relax media restrictions, and set forth a preliminary plan for initial political and economic reforms. These steps together offered an opening to the Obama administration to begin engaging the country in hopes of both advancing human rights in the region and adding a strategic partner in Asia to balance an increasingly assertive China.
The task will be difficult one, particularly in light of China’s nervous response to a resurgence of U.S. presence in Asia following President Obama’s nine-day visit to the region, but it could pay dividends in terms of human rights and strategic interests. Secretary Clinton’s trip offers an opportunity for Burmese leaders to demonstrate their commitment to real political reform and respect of human rights. And while Clinton tests Burma’s desire to turn a corner, the Obama administration should also seek to turn up the heat on China, whose support has enabled years of violence against civilians in Burma.
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