I am a Shan ethnic woman from Burma who has been working for human rights and democracy in my homeland for decades. I had the opportunity this year to spend time at the National Endowment for Democracy as a visiting fellow, researching the role of women in Burma’s democratic transition. During my time in Washington, I remained in touch with my colleagues in Burma and areas along the border to keep track of the changes that were taking place. But instead of hearing excitement in their voices about democratic openings, I heard growing fear.
While there has been much change in Burma over the past two years, the glowing talk one hears in Washington is at odds with the reality on the ground. Shan state, where I am from, and other ethnic areas continue to experience intense political and armed conflicts. Across the country, human rights abuses are rampant, perpetrated with impunity. Activists and even ordinary farmers and villagers have been arrested, beaten and jailed for engaging in nonviolent efforts to challenge mega-projects such as mining, gas pipelines and dams. Police routinely crack down on peaceful demonstrators with excessive force.
Yet these same authorities are unwilling to stop violence that genuinely threatens Burma’s future. Their failure to intervene in attacks on Burma’s minority Muslims — including in Lashio, a beautiful city in the heart of northern Shan state — has been especially shocking. Even though I have seen terrible violence in my homeland, I never expected to see anti-Muslim attacks of the kind that took place in May. Friends, relatives and colleagues talk about an atmosphere of pervasive fear. They speculate about the “strangers” and “outsiders” they saw among the mob, people who disappeared after the violence was over. They express dread that such a riot could happen again, anywhere and at anytime. They lament a climate of extremism unlike anything in their memories.
I am Buddhist, and I learned from earliest childhood that hate is a negative, destructive emotion that we should strive to eliminate through the spread of metta, or “loving-kindness,” and compassion for others. I therefore cannot understand how the 969 Movement, which serves to foster division and hatred, can be defended in the name of “Buddhism.” Yet instead of rejecting the views of monks such as U Wirathu , the fiery 969 Movement leader, the Burmese government and political elite have supported and cultivated him.
As I studied the recent violence more closely, I began seeing a pattern to attacks across Burma. First, a woman or girl is brutally attacked or raped by an individual of a different faith. This incident triggers broader violence by organized “Buddhist” mobs that attack local Muslims: torching their homes, businesses, schools and places of worship; beating and killing civilians, including burning them alive; and destroying the social fabric of communities. Security forces stand by as violence rages. While there are often efforts to investigate the initial incident, the instigators and perpetrators of violence remain at large, literally getting away with murder.
Despite the risks of doing so, some Burmese — especially female activists — are standing up to extremists. The strongest example is the fight against a proposal to outlaw interfaith marriage. While political leaders have failed to forcefully reject this discriminatory and dangerous initiative, women have spearheaded efforts to block it.
Burma’s leaders, who ignore United Nations resolutions with impunity, have increased their engagement with the outside world, making an all-out effort through media, diplomacy and peace missions to polish the country’s image. It seems to be working: Former military officials have been welcomed to Western capitals and treated as honored guests with seemingly little regard for whether they have blood on their hands. Burmese authorities’ dismissal of an outrageous Aug. 19 mob attack on Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special human rights rapporteur in Burma, should have drawn condemnation from the international community rather than silence — or, worse, sympathy for the “challenges” authorities face.
Human rights violators have gotten away with crimes in Burma for decades. The Burmese people had hope for justice as long as the international community documented and condemned their abuses. As the U.N. General Assembly writes its annual resolution against Burma, it must make serious recommendations that accurately reflect the realities in my country. If countries that long supported our struggle for human rights and democracy instead decide that the status quo is “good enough” and turn a blind eye to ongoing abuses, our dream of justice may never be part of Burma’s future.
Nang Lao Liang Won was a 2013 Reagan Fascell democracy fellow at the International Forum for Democracy of the National Endowment for Democracy. She is a member of the advisory team of the Shan Women’s Action Network.