Human security in Burma: an unreachable conclusion?

Human trafficking needs a joint-up approach if it is to be beaten in Burma, says Thanawat Pimoljinda

Thanawat Pimoljinda
16 December 2010

The problems of human rights and human trafficking in Burma is now high on the agendas of various international forums. Confrontations between the Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) and ethnic minority armed groups are continuing and have even intensified as a result of the government’s plan to transform armed opposition groups into Tatmadaw-commanded ‘border guard forces’. In parallel, as part of the “four cuts strategy” (an attempt to cut off food, funds, intelligence, and recruits to the insurgents), the Tatmadaw has perpetrated widespread violations of economic, social, and cultural rights, including the deprivation of means of livelihood, excessive taxation, and coercion. By these and other measures, ethnic minorities are discriminated against, or even, in some cases, not recognised as citizens of Burma. Displacement and other state-sponsored coercive measures such as forced labor and land confiscation have also been manipulated, contributing to the massive outflow of refugees from Burma.

Since the early 1980s, an estimated three million people from ethnic minorities have left Burma hoping to find economic opportunities in neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, most have only found employment in low-skilled industries. For example, Burmese migrants are allowed to work in the areas that the Thai workers do not want to do such as commercial seafood and fishing industries, as well as construction sites and domestic work sectors. Especially in the case of women and children, they have been trafficked into situations of forced labour and the commercial sex industry. Areas of migrant and refugee settlement have been blighted by the smuggling of illicit drugs and the epidemic of HIV/AIDS. None of the efforts to democratise the political-economic system in Burma, which would ultimately alleviate the issue, have been effective due to the contradictions of the strategic-oriented foreign policies of key international actors.

The role of regional institutions

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have, since the 1997 Asean Conference on Transnational Crime held in Manila, called for firm measures to combat transnational crime and trafficking in women and children particularly in Burma. However, despite its rules-based mechanisms under the Asean Charter, in effect since 2008, the response of Asean members to the problem of human rights and human trafficking in Burma still largely follows the normative foundations of the so-called ‘Asean way’, emphasising non-interference in internal affairs. 

Also culpable is the reluctant course of action taken by such independent agencies as the Asean Human Rights Body and the Working Group for an Asean Human Rights Mechanism. Some representatives have expressed the opinion that the new human rights body should not intervene in domestic human rights issues such as the current crisis in Burma. Instead, some believe, it should protect member countries from foreign meddling. Asean members have argued that the primary task of the nascent human rights body is to promote and protect human rights, which in its view means raising awareness, providing advice, sharing information, and advocating, but not passing judgments regarding human rights in any member states.

Consequently, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) can use its status as a member of Asean to guarantee its internal political power, and to ensure that other members respect commitments to non-interference already made. Equally important, it seemingly remains in doubt whether the emphasis on human rights and human trafficking is sufficient. Although Asean members have made efforts to counter trafficking, there is a growing perception that Asean members fail to deal adequately with trans-border migration in general, and that the law is not effectively enforced inside the state, even if it is at its borders.

In order to alleviate such problems and uphold social security, the challenge needs to be viewed not just as a threat affecting social stability of each member, but also as an important challenge which inhibits regional security and development as a whole.Each Asean member government needs to raise this issue on its national agenda, and in particular on the regional forum for top-level political and economic discussion. In doing so, individual members of Asean must relinquish some of their autonomous power in order to develop common decision-making and settlement of the problem. They should also be concerned about the specific code of conduct or legal-based settlement for any potential problems occurring in each member state that may affect internal and regional security rather than adopt the diplomatic or negotiation approach under the principles of the ‘Asean way’.

Economic interests vs human rights

Burma has prime of place in the geo-political and geo-economic strategies of both China and India because of its energy resources, needed to sustain economic growth in both nations. The reason why Beijing and New Delhi have supported the SPDC over recent years is grounded in the fact that the stability of Burma serves the interests of both sides. Even though foreign direct investment flowing into Burma is among the lowest of Asean members, China’s trade and investment with Burma reached US$2.9 billion in 2009. During a two-day visit in June 2010, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao signed 15 cooperation documents, including oil and gas pipeline projects with Burma. However, human rights abuses and environmental damage resulting from China’s investments in Burma were neglected. Beijing has also done little to stop the flow of Burmese women, particularly those from Kachin and Shan states, being sold into forced marriages with Chinese men.

India is another major power that has, perhaps after China, the best relations with Burma’s ruling junta. India has provided important military and financial assistance that helps to keep the SPDC in power. Following a five-day visit to India by General Than Shwe in July 2010, New Delhi agreed to help Burma in developmental activities covering information technology, industry, and infrastructure. The issue of investment in natural resources is the main emphasis of bilateral relations. Indeed,  since February 2010 India’s cabinet committee on Economic Affairs has approved $1.35 billion in gas projects in Burma, including financing for the construction of the Shwe pipeline. While the most significant investment of India is in the massive Shwe gas project, which is expected to provide Burma an average of US$580 million per year, an estimated 100,000 Burmese refugees residing in India are still forced to work in low-wage industries, and many Shin women have been forced into the commercial sex industry 

Foreign nations are being guided by national economic and political interests rather than human rights and social development. Specifically, China and India’s defence of non-intervention in interstate relations and their rejection of international sanctions against Burma may allow the SPDC to increase its political and economic leverage at home and abroad on the one hand, and exacerbate human security and the trafficking situation on the other.

Economic sanctions

The lack of support for sanctions from Asean, China, and India has made Burma insensitive to the US’s unilateral economic pressure. Especially in the view of Asean, the policy of isolation and pressure on the SPDC could heighten its sense of insecurity, leading to even more brutal repression within the country. At the same time, such policies have had a far-reaching effect not only on Burma’s national economy but on social conditions and human security by putting the poor at risk of being trafficked.

Unlike the US, the EU and Asean ministers agreed—at the 18th Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting held in Madrid on May 26, 2010—to continue their dialogue on Burma, including discussions on how to increase assistance to improve Burma’s social and economic conditions. An estimated 17.25 million euros in humanitarian aid provided through the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) is expected to improve the standard of living of the ethnic groups living along Burma’s borders and refugee camps in Thailand. However, it is provided without any measures that can ensure their protection from being abused and exploited by the SPDC. More importantly, it is doubtful that such humanitarian aid scenarios provided would conversely make the SPDC less concerns about the problem of human rights and trafficking in persons.

Besides economic and military assistance provided by China and India, the discrepancy between EU and US policy choices can also reduce the impact of sanctions upon Burma. At this point, if the US and the EU want to solve the problem of human trafficking in Burma, they will require greater cooperation with key regional players in order to succeed. They should hold bilateral talks on the matter of the problem with Asean members, and do so with China and India, either formally or informally or both. Specifically, as India and some other East Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea are its major allies in Asia, Washington should make use of its good relationship with these Asian countries in pressing Beijing to take a more active role in responding to the problem of human rights violations and human trafficking in Burma.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData