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Smoking flax

New openness in Burma covers lingering abuses

Issue: "2011 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2011

President Barack Obama's assessment of political progress in the military-dominated nation of Burma over the last year: "Flickers of progress" after "years of darkness." The flickers-including eased press restrictions and legalized labor unions-led to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit Nov. 30, the first visit to Burma (also known as Myanmar) by a high-ranking U.S. official in more than 50 years.

But urgent questions remain: Will the flickers of progress bring light to the deepest darkness, including ongoing oppression of Christian minorities? And will the U.S. continue applying needed pressure to Burmese officials, even while extending a fresh olive branch?

The years of Burmese darkness are infamous: The nation's military has ruled brutally over the isolated Asian nation for decades, suppressing opposition with ruthless beatings, imprisonment, rape, and murder. The results: widespread misery and deep poverty for many.

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But progress flickered after Burma held its first elections in two decades last year. Election observers called the contest a sham that entrenched military leadership, but government officials instituted a handful of reforms that surprised opponents, including releasing some 300 political prisoners. (An estimated 1,600 remain in jail.)

The reforms were enough to lead famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to announce that her National League for Democracy party would participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. That represented a major shift for the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent over 20 years under house arrest for opposing the Burmese regime, and who led her political party to boycott elections.

But Burma remains one of the U.S. State Department's eight countries of particular concern for religious oppression. Officials in the predominantly Buddhist nation regularly repress religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims. (Christians are nearly 9 percent of Burma's population, according to Operation World.)

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that Burmese officials regularly deny Christians permission to build churches. The government also bans religious meetings in unregistered venues, like homes, making legal meetings nearly impossible for many.

Religious oppression flared recently in Burma's northern state of Kachin-home to the Kachin ethnic minority group, made up mostly of Christians-when the Burmese military sparked a conflict with the Kachin Independence Army in June that forced thousands to flee their homes.

Partners Relief & Development, a Norway-based human-rights group, reported on Nov. 28 that results from a recent fact-finding mission to the region revealed fresh attacks on Kachin residents, including torture and rape. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch reported that during a similar visit this summer witnesses in Kachin described "serious abuses committed by Burmese soldiers, including killings and attacks on civilians, pillaging of villages, and the unlawful use of forced labor."

Meanwhile, U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that Burmese soldiers were targeting pastors during the violence: In early November, Burmese soldiers attacked and looted an Assemblies of God church in Kachin. The soldiers detained two ministers, and a youth leader remained missing after the attack. CSW reported that one of the detained ministers, Shayu Lum Hkawng, "died on Nov. 7 after severe torture."

During his November remarks, Obama said the U.S. remains concerned about Burma's human-rights abuses, persecution of political opposition, and brutality against ethnic minorities. Benedict Rogers of CSW said the United States should continue to press those issues publicly: "It is vital that in our enthusiasm to welcome some political changes, we do not overlook the grave human rights violations that continue to be perpetrated."

Clinton praised Burma's progress during her November visit, but told reporters that the country should release all political prisoners and break military ties with North Korea. "It will be up to the leaders and the people to fan flickers of progress into flames of freedom that light the path toward a better future," she said. "That-and nothing less-is what it will take for us to turn a solitary visit into a lasting partnership."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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