WASHINGTON – On April 1, international election monitors and media outlets reported a remarkable event in Myanmar. Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — who spent years under house arrest, and sometimes in prison, fighting for democracy and justice — was elected to Parliament. All week, calls have grown for all economic sanctions and international pressure on the regime to be lifted.
Heeding these calls would be a serious mistake.
I and a colleague spent election day in Kachin state, in the northernmost part of Myanmar. Bullets, not ballots, are the currency there. International observers and reporters are not welcome. After crossing the border from China under the cloak of darkness, and making our way over bone-crushing roads, we saw why.
Tens of thousands of Kachins, a long-repressed ethnic minority in Myanmar, have been forced from their homes into crowded makeshift camps as more and more troops march into an area rich in natural resources. Despite President Thein Sein’s promise to pull back the military in December, the opposite is happening in Kachin, where the escalation of troops, weapons and brutality continues unabated.
I met several dozen Kachin who had just escaped from their village, leaving behind their homes, crops and livestock. Some had walked for four days with only enough food for their children, carrying all that remained of their belongings on their backs.
They fled to makeshift camps that lack adequate food, sanitation and health care. We saw children with obvious respiratory illness and skin disease. The government’s unwillingness to allow food or humanitarian aid into these areas recently gave way to international pressure. We saw five United Nations trucks delivering food. Still, relief workers told us it was only a small fraction of what was needed. A child coming down with what would otherwise be a highly treatable illness can die under these conditions. We attended the funeral of one such child — an 11-month-old who died after contracting diarrhea. The family asked that we stay as honored guests so that we, and the outside world, would know.
A farmer described being apprehended when he, his wife and father-in-law were harvesting corn. They were forced to carry the corn to a military encampment but attempted to escape. His wife was caught and he has not seen her since. A Baptist minister, father of seven, was apprehended after he tried to sneak back to his village. His wife, speaking with a toddler afoot and an infant on her back, sobbed as she said she had no idea what had become of him.
We made our way to an outpost of Kachin Independence Army soldiers, just beyond the range of the Myanmarese military’s mortars. If we went further, we were told, our car would almost certainly become a target. As we spoke a pickup truck appeared carrying two elderly women. They had abandoned their homes and village that morning. Their crops had been destroyed, they told us, and their cattle killed. They escaped carrying what they could on their backs.
Without question, Suu Kyi’s election to Myanmar’s parliament is a remarkable achievement. But what I have seen this past week reminds me that it is only part of the story. The other part, hidden in the mountains and valleys of Kachin state and in villages of other ethnic minorities, is vastly different. It is one that Myanmar’s military-dominated government does not want you to see.
It is reasonable for the United States and the international community to recognize what progress has been made in Myanmar with measured, prudent (and reversible) rewards. But relaxing all sanctions and international pressure on this regime would be a serious mistake.
Progress did not occur in Myanmar because military leaders suddenly realized that they had erred. It came about precisely because of international pressure. To remove this pressure at a time when the government escalates its brutality against a long-suffering people would be unconscionable and should be unacceptable to the U.S.
The Obama administration and Congress should recognize the progress in Myanmar. But they should not do so by condemning tens of thousands of innocent people to the mercy of a military government entirely freed from the pressure of sanctions.
Tom Andrews, a former U.S. representative from Maine, is president of United to End Genocide.