Since Thein Sein became president of Myanmar (also called Burma) two years ago, he has won international praise for his attempts at democratic reforms. He has received historic visits from Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has praised Sein for “his vision, leadership, and courage to put Myanmar on the path to change.” And last year,Foreign Policymagazine named him Thinker of the Year. Now, the International Crisis Group (ICG) plans to present him with its In Pursuit of Peace award at a gala dinner in New York City in April, for having “transformed the lives of millions and brought us closer to a world free of conflict.”
A world away, in the remote mountainous region of Kachin in northern Myanmar, news of the peace award was greeted with horror. Lives in Kachin have indeed been transformed, but not for the better. Up to 100,000 have fled their homes since the Burmese military reengaged with Kachin rebels in June 2011, just three months after the new president took office. Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive use of “sexual violence, forced labour, torture and summary executions” by the Burmese military. One woman I met in a refugee camp along the Chinese border recounted how Burmese soldiers hacked off her husband’s legs with a machete before shooting him in the head. He was a paddy farmer who had returned to his village to tend his crop.
All this has had little effect on Sein’s positive reputation within the international community, which is willing to ignore the war in Kachin for three reasons: Sein deserves praise for reforms in other parts of the country, he has sought cease-fires with other ethnic rebel groups, and he is engaged in a struggle against military “hard-liners” that requires international support.
It is true that Sein’s efforts to open up the country have been shockingly sudden and far-reaching: He has eased censorship laws, held free and fair by-elections, released opposition
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