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USA Must Not Abandon Forgotten Allies in Burma

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Whenever people learn I am from Burma, the first thing they say is something like, 'isn't it all getting better there now?' Perhaps it is for some, but I am an ethnic Kachin woman, and so my answer is no, it is getting much much worse.

Kachin State is in the North-east of Burma, a center of the mining industry. Until Thein Sein became President, there had been a ceasefire which had lasted for 17 years.In June 2011, he broke that ceasefire. As in other ethnic states, once the Burmese Army was unleashed against us, the most horrific human rights abuses followed.

The Human Rights Council resolution on Burma, passed in March 2013, described these abuses, including; '...arbitrary detention, forced displacement, land confiscations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as violations of international humanitarian law,.... violence, displacement and economic deprivation affecting persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities... armed conflict in Kachin State and the associated human rights violations and allegations of international humanitarian law violations, desecration of places of worship, sexual violence and torture...'

The conflict has displaced over 100,000 civilians. Most of the displaced are sheltering in makeshift camps along the Chinese border, where the government continues to restrict humanitarian aid. The 2012 United Nations General Assembly resolution on Burma describes these restrictions as violations of international law.

All of this has been taking place at the same time as the much hailed reform process. The Kachin people of Burma have watched in disbelief as at the same time as their villages are burned, their wives raped and their husbands shot while farming in the fields, the international community, including the USA, has hailed Thein Sein as a courageous reformer.

It has been particularly painful for the Kachin, as we were allies of the USA during World War Two. We fought side by side with the US Army. At great personal risk, we sheltered US soldiers in our villages, hiding them from the Japanese. How could our friendship and loyalty be so easily forgotten?

To add insult to injury, the US Congress is now considering lifting the Block Burmese JADE Act, which expires at the end of this month.

One of the root causes of the conflict in Kachin State is the issue of natural resources. Under the current constitution, the central Burmese government has total decision making power over the extraction and sale of natural resources in ethnic states. This includes jade, which is only mined in Kachin State, and other gems such as rubies. Jade mining concessions are granted solely by the central Burmese government, and jade is only officially allowed to be marketed in central Burma. Profits from jade sales go directly to the central government, which continues to spend more than 20% of its budget on the military. Significant areas of Kachin State and Shan State, including mining areas, have suffered from renewed conflict which began in June 2011.

The prospect of huge profits to be made could encourage increased militarization and even fresh conflict as government forces seek to secure control of areas where mines are or where deposits may be. This will result in increased human rights abuses in these areas. Mines in the zones where there is conflict or has recently been conflict are also operating in an environment where there is no rule of law and no way for conditions to be externally monitored. Local people will be more vulnerable to land confiscation and other forms of exploitation. There will be no control over environmental destruction, which in turn results in loss of livelihoods and wildlife, and no protection for workers.

Increased militarization and conflict in mining areas would also destabilize the current fragile talks between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation.

Reforms in central Burma have already been richly rewarded, with many US sanctions already lifted and economic sanctions in Canada, Australia and the European Union completely lifted. In this context, for those arguing that ending the JADE Act will be a reward which encourages further reform, enough reward has already been given. The benefits do not outweigh the risks of increased human rights abuses on the ground and the risk of increasing conflict and undermining fragile peace talks.

The JADE Act also acts in a positive way as leverage which encourages the Burmese government to continue to engage in talks. The JADE Act helps promote peace and human rights. It applies pressure which encourages political dialogue to address key issues such as ownership and control of natural resources in the Kachin areas, one of the root causes of the conflict and widespread suffering of our people.

In World War Two Kachin and Americans fought and died side by side defending freedom and democracy. We are dying again defending freedom and fighting for democracy. Through the JADE Act America has stood side by side with us again. Kachin fathers and brothers are being killed. Kachin mothers and sisters are being raped. America, please don't abandon us in our hour of need. Let us continue to be allies. Now is not the time to reward Thein Sein by lifting yet more sanctions.