Recent developments in Burma have been cautiously welcomed by western diplomats, while NGO’s accuse the Burmese government of war crimes.
Burma has seen a shift in policy since the first elections in 20 years and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November last year.
Talks between the Nobel Peace laureate and the government are thought to be behind positive steps taken by the government to address concerns of the Burmese population.
Internet restrictions have been lifted and the government allowed UN special rapporteur on Human Rights, Tomas Quintana, to visit after banning him for over a year for proposing a UN commission of inquiry into human rights violations.
Shwe Mann, speaker of Burma’s lower house of parliament is reported to have told Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Baarth Eide on Friday that the regime will release more than 1,200 political prisoners ‘within days’.
Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs has cautiously welcomed the positive moves by the regime and promised that concrete steps would be matched by the US. However he made clear that the US would want to see real progress on human rights issues before anything substantial is offered by Washington and its European allies.
Last month the government surprisingly suspended a project on a controversial dam to be built at the source of the Irrawady. The dam was being developed by the state Myanmar Ministry of Electric Power, the privately-owned Asia World Company of Burma and the China Power Investment Corporation.
China has threatened legal action and demanded an explanation, but the concerns of the thousands of ethnic Kachin villagers who have either already been displaced or will be forced to leave their homes, seem to have found sympathy with the regime.
The President said in a letter to parliament, “the government is elected by the people and has to respect the people’s will”.
The developments suggest that recent overtures are as much about gaining the trust of the Burmese population as they are a shift away from China’s stranglehold on the country.
Any hopes of improving the crippled Burmese economy rely on the lifting of sanctions by the West, which have been in place for over 10 years.
Meanwhile however, the Burmese military is continuing its brutal war with Kachin and Shan separatists after a ceasefire broke down in June this year.
Representatives of a Kachin Women’s NGO, based in Thailand have urged the UN to take a stand on the atrocities committed by the Burmese forces.
Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (Kwat) spokesperson Hkawng Seng Pan told Mizzima that a recent report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon downplayed the ethnic conflict between Burma and the Kachin Independence Organisation.
“The Myanmar army is committing violent human rights abuses, including rape, murder and forced labour in places where it is fighting against the KIO. Ban Ki-moon and the UN must speak out about what is happening so the killing stops.” she told reporters.
Kwat released their own report on Friday, documenting abuses committed in the three months since the latest outbreak of violence.
Hkawng Seng Pan also noted the recent change in rhetoric by the Burmese regime but said while the government may have changed their tone recently, the actions of the country’s armed forces have not.
She told Mizzima: “You can see clearly how the Burmese government is working; the Army is fighting and killing ethnic people while Thein Sein is speaking about human rights to a Parliament full of generals and former military officers.”
Over 300,000 people are thought to have been killed in ethnic violence since independence in 1948.