Obama is Endorsing a War Criminal in Burma

Repression continues in Burma, and international law is still flouted, but what are the consequences for Thein Sein?

When President Obama met Burma's President Thein Sein, he will find he has something in common with his Burmese counterpart. Neither of them have completely kept their word about promoting human rights in Burma.

At his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama said; "When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma -- there must be consequences...those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted." Repression continues in Burma, and international law is still flouted, but what are the consequences for Thein Sein? He gets rewarded with the first ever visit to Burma by a US President. More than that, he also gets more sanctions lifted. This comes within a week of the USA adding its name to a draft Resolution on Burma at the UN General Assembly which makes repeated references to continuing violations of international law.

A large number of those violations of international law are taking place against my own people, the ethnic Kachin of Burma. While many of the majority ethnic Burman group in central Burma have enjoyed some increased civil liberties under President Thein Sein, this has not been the case for Burma's many ethnic groups.

In June last year the Burmese government broke a 17 year long ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation. Burmese Army soldiers deliberately targeted the civilian population, attacking villages, killing, raping, looting and torturing. Many women were gang-raped, mutilated and killed. Farmers were shot in their fields. The attacks continue still.

At the same time at least 80,000 people have been forced to flee the attacks and human rights abuses. Many are now living in camps in appalling conditions. Disease and malnutrition are endemic. There is only basic medical care. Why? Because President Thein Sein won't allow international aid agencies and the UN to deliver aid to them. Children are sick, mothers die in child birth, and it's a deliberate policy of Thein Sein.

How has the US responded? Hilary Clinton has described Thein Sein's actions as courageous. When the US government finally did give aid to help these tens of thousands of internally displaced people they gave most of it to the UN, which doesn't have access to most of these people, not local community organisations who are saving lives every day, and could have saved more lives if they had the resources.

The human rights abuses being committed by the Burmese Army are classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. To block aid is a violation of international humanitarian law. President Obama isn't ensuring there are consequences for Thein Sein, he is giving him rewards. He won't have to avert his eyes, he won't be visiting the camps where thousands of Kachin live in misery. Obama won't meet the mother of Sumlut Roi, who was abducted by Burmese Army soldiers, and is thought to have been repeatedly raped before being killed. Obama won't meet the wife of Brang Shawng, who is one of Burma's new political prisoners. Obama won't have to look in the eyes of children who have seen their mother bayonetted, their father tortured, their home burned.

For ethnic Kachin the silence of the USA over the violations of international law taking place, and the way President Obama is moving closer to and now even endorsing President Thein Sein, is a particular betrayal. The Kachin and the USA were allies in World War Two. We fought side by side against the Japanese invaders. Frankly, we expected more understanding and more support.

I am sure President Obama will raise human rights concerns on his visit, but I am equally sure he is just going through the motions. Obama is sending a clear message by visiting Burma at this time. He is endorsing a reform process most Burmese still see as a sham. He is telling Thein Sein Burma is back in from the cold, part of the international community again. And he is telling Thein Sein, we'll put up with a certain level of human rights abuses, just don't go too far.

For President Obama, China, relations with ASEAN, trade and North Korea are more important than human rights for all in Burma. These factors are what drives policy now. If the attacks against Kachin civilians were happening near Rangoon, rather than remote mountains in the north of the country, I doubt President Obama would even dream of visiting Burma. Many Burmese will be celebrating President Obama's visit, but for the Kachin, it's just one more sign of how despite his pledge not to avert his eyes, he is prepared to do exactly that.


What's Hot