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Ghosts of Myanmar’s past refuse to be buried

April 27, 2013

These past few weeks have been somewhat hectic for the government of Myanmar. First, there was the prestigious peace award given to President Thein Sein by the International Crises Group, recognizing his work toward a peace that can be achieved.

Then came the lifting of all sanctions by the European Union, except for its arms embargo. Afterward the government released 100 prisoners, 56 of whom were said to be political internees. More than 800 political prisoners have been freed in amnesties between May 2011 and last November.

But later the mood among the country’s political leaders wasn’t so festive, nor among Western countries.

A 153-page report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled “All You

Can Do is Pray: Crimes against Humanity in the Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State” quickly re-established a sense of reality about Myanmar.

HRW accuses the Myanmar government and other local authorities of taking part in the displacement of more than 125,000 minority Rohingya and other Muslims.

“Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organised and encouraged ethnic Arakanese, backed by state security forces, to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The tens of thousands of displaced have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home,” the report said.

Critics also slammed the Myanmar government for not doing enough in the recent anti-Muslim disturbances in other parts of the country.

As expected, Myanmar dismissed the report and other allegations.

It wasn’t that long ago that many in the international community were using terms such as “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the atrocities committed by the then-military government of Myanmar.

There were reports accusing government soldiers of using rape as a military weapon to demoralize ethnic people such as the Shan and Karen. Countries including the U.S. threw their weight behind some of these reports. Myanmar, in short, was the big bad wolf, a pariah among nations.

And then came the political reform, and with it a breath of fresh air. The international community rushed in along with foreign investors looking to establish a presence in this resource-rich country sandwiched between China and India.

From the geo-political point of view, one can’t deny the strategic appeal of Myanmar. But the world hasn’t fully decided whether it’s willing to let bygones be bygones. Have we forgotten about the alleged atrocities from the reams of reports over the past decades?

Certainly the rape victims and the displaced villagers — thousands of whom are stranded in makeshift camps on the Thai side of the border — have not forgotten.

What is just as appalling is the fact that the country’s leaders continue to cynically deny that their troops committed any of these atrocities.

Perhaps it is too early to abandon the carrot-and-stick approach when it comes to Myanmar. Western countries that claim to be champions of human rights and democracy seem all too eager to extend all sorts of incentives to the government.

While we can’t deny that much progress has been made over the last couple of years in terms of political and economic reform, the world must think carefully about completely closing the book on alleged atrocities over the past five decades.

If so, can we also apply this logic and treatment to the drug lords, some of whom, like the Wa leaders, have been indicted in Thai and U.S. courts for heroin trafficking?