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Awards for War? Why Are We Giving Prizes to Burma's Thein Sein and Indonesia's SBY?

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Intelligent people can be staggeringly unintelligent at times.

In recent weeks, two respectable international organisations working in the fields of conflict resolution, human rights and interfaith dialogue have awarded prizes to the leaders of two Asian countries where there is growing religious conflict and grave violations of human rights.

On 22 April, International Crisis Group presented its annual "In Pursuit of Peace" award to Burma's President, Thein Sein. And last week, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation announced it was giving its World Statesman Award to the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Both men, it is true, have taken their countries on a path of greater openness and more engagement with the world. Both have talked the language of reform and democratisation. And in both countries, there are positive achievements to point to.

In Burma, over the past two years there has been a change in atmosphere. There is more freedom of expression, and increased space for civil society, the media and political actors. Many political prisoners have been released, and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament a year ago in by-elections, along with 42 of her colleagues in the National League for Demcoracy (NLD). Fragile, preliminary ceasefires have been agreed with all but one of the ethnic armed groups.

Indonesia has made a remarkable transition to democracy from dictatorship, and President Yudhoyono - or "SBY" - has consolidated political reform. Indonesia now has a thriving civil society and a largely free press.

And yet, in both countries, during the governments of both men, conflict and religious intolerance has grown.

In June 2011, President Thein Sein's government ended a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and launched a major military offensive against the Kachin people. The KIO, despite its name, is not fighting for secession - they simply want equal rights for the ethnic nationalities, and a degree of autonomy in a federal democracy. From 1994 until 2011, they not only maintained a ceasefire, but co-operated actively with the regime, participating in the sham National Convention to draft a new Constitution. Yet when the regime pushed them to become a Border Guard Force under the control of the Burma Army, effectively surrendering without any political settlement, the KIO not unreasonably refused. The response from Thein Sein's government? A return to war which has left over 100,000 civilians displaced, more than 200 villages burned down and over 66 churches destroyed.

In December, the Burma Army intensified its assault on the Kachin, using airstrikes for the first time in decades. Elderly people, women and children were among the casualties. Even now, although the conflict has de-escalated, severe human rights abuses continue. I met one man recently who had been imprisoned last year, and endured horrific torture. He was hung upside down for a day and a night, beaten and attacked with knives. "They put a hand grenade in my mouth and threatened to pull the pin ... then they put a plastic bag over my face and poured water over it," he told me. The wife of one current Kachin prisoner described seeing her husband after he had been tortured. "He was covered in blood, and his nose was broken...An iron bar was rubbed along his legs. He was forced to engage in homosexual sex ...He was told that as he was a Christian, he should kneel on very sharp stones with his arms outstretched like Christ on the cross...He was beaten on his hands and arms."

As another Kachin told me, "the impact of the war this time has been enormous. Many have lost land, plantations, livelihoods ... People are living in the middle of nowhere, hopeless, desperate, suffering." Another talked of their loss of trust in Thein Sein. "This civilian government is worse than the previous military regime," one said. "They should start with dialogue. Imposing demands with military action is wrong." A third said that when Thein Sein became President, "people had hope". But now, due to the hardship of war, "instead of hope, they hate the government".

And the Kachin are not the only ones whose suffering has increased dramatically in the past year or two. In June last year, a major campaign of violence against the Muslim Rohingya people in Arakan State began, followed by another wave in October, resulting in at least a thousand deaths, and the displacement of at least 130,000 people. Wider anti-Muslim violence erupted this year, and tensions continue to smoulder. Thein Sein's security forces were complicit in many instances: in some cases they actively participated in the violence, in other places they stood by and watched as Muslims were slaughtered. Major international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have warned of ethnic cleansing.

To what extent Thein Sein himself is directly culpable is open to debate. At times his rhetoric has been reassuring, but at other times his statements have been extraordinarily inflammatory, as when he called on the UN to resettle Rohingyas to third countries. Either way, even his reassuring statements have not been followed through with action, and whether through weakness, negligence or deliberate design, he has presided over the displacement of over 230,000 people during his presidency, and an escalation in conflict. How can he be the recipient of a peace award?

Similarly, during SBY's presidency religious intolerance has escalated. Christian churches have been forced to close even though they are legally licensed; congregations have been subjected to violence and intimidation; Ahmadi Muslims have faced increasing persecution, and now live in fear; Shia Muslims are under threat too; and an atheist has been jailed. Like Thein Sein, it is debateable whether SBY is actively complicit or just weak, but either way he has not intervened to stop violence, protect minorities or promote religious harmony. He has not been heard contradicting the chilling remarks of the Governor of West Java, who said that Indonesia's problems will disappear when the Ahmadiyah disappear. Indonesia's tradition of pluralism and moderate Islam has begun to unravel during his presidency. What on earth qualifies him for an award for championing religious freedom?

Sometimes well-intentioned people see situations only in simplistic terms. Burma is beginning, at least on the surface, in some areas, to change - so, think the policy wonks, Thein Sein is a wonderful man who deserves a peace prize. Ditto Indonesia, which has made a remarkable transition - ergo, SBY is a great champion of religious freedom. So desperate are they for just a glimmer of good news after years of bad, they are like British people at the first hint of sunshine - they strip off, get the barbecue out and have a party, ignoring the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

On the other hand, sometimes complexity is over-emphasised, and used as an excuse for inaction. Such an approach is equally dangerous, attempting to excuse severe human rights violations in the name of complexity or 'cultural differences'.

If the international community is to encourage genuine reform, promote religious harmony and resolve conflicts, it must recalibrate its position in regard to both Burma and Indonesia. It is right to caveat criticisms with a recognition of positive achievements; it is also right to present criticisms as constructively as possible, appealing to self-interest. Indeed, both Thein Sein and SBY risk undoing all they have achieved by ignoring religious intolerance and failing to end conflict and promote peace, and that point should be made clearly to them. But it is plain wrong to ignore the problems and let them go unchallenged, and it is either stupidly naive or wilfully complicit to present awards for peace to Thein Sein or SBY while conflict in both countries increases. What will be next? Kim Jong Un for the Nobel Peace Prize?