Elections and Expectations

Elections give rise to expectations.  For some, elections offer hope for positive change while others fear the outcome will set back their lives and the future they value.   Certainly, in the United States, such emotions are swirling throughout our communities at this time.

We are not unique on how we view the results flowing from elections.  In November of last year, Burma held its first, true nation-wide election in decades.  The National League for Democracy (NLD) competed for and won 75% of the Parliamentary seats, removing the autocratic military regime from its dominant governmental position.

It’s fair to ask what expectations will flow from this historic election – principally for Burma’s ethnic minorities.  Comprised of 135 distinct peoples with unique languages, cultures and traditions, Burma’s ethnic minorities reflect a vibrant element of its society.  How they are treated also reflects the nature and humanity (or inhumanity) of the ruling party.

With the rise of Nobel Laurent Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party, many outside Burma anticipate positive change.  While the NLD’s victory does create powerful momentum, the reality of Burma’s history and the latent power of the military will stifle opportunity, respect and dignity for Burma’s minorities.

For over six decades, the military has led a campaign of isolation and attack against the primary minorities in the east, north and western regions.  It seeks the control of the land and the resident resources: hydro-electrical power, gems, natural resources, timber and drug trade.  The regime has sought a “divide and destroy” approach to its efforts with the minority peoples.

For years, the military has combined an offensive aimed at eliminating the Karen and other groups in the east while also creating a passive regimen of isolation – denying international assistance from reaching remote villages and areas.  The results are horrific:

  • 1 million people displaced from their homes
  • Hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps in Thailand
  • Hundreds of thousands living as undocumented migrants in Thailand – without rights or respect
  • More than 500,000 lived internally displaced inside Burma’s jungles, where, due to the lack of health care:
    • 1 in 10 children do not survive their first year
    • 1 in 12 mothers do not survive childbirth
    • 1 in 10 suffer from diarrhea and dysentery
    • 1 in 5 suffer from malaria
    • 2 in 5 children endure acute malnutrition
    • 60% of all children’s deaths could be cured with basic medicines

In June 2011, the Burma’s junta unilaterally broke a decade’s long ceasefire in Kachin State, expanding its campaign against the minorities.  An additional 250,000 people have fled their homes, seeking sanctuaries in refugee camps or internally displaced person camps of Burma’s jungles.

With Burma’s recent elections, one hope is that such horrific results would become history.  One might expect that the military would become responsive to the country’s civilian leaders and the rule of law.

The reality crushes such expectations.

The reality is that the military is independent of the civilian authorities.  The Chief of Burma’s army appointments the ministers for defense, security, police and home affairs.  In fact, the Army runs all civil service departments at the national and local levels.

And, Burma’s army has not relented in its offensive against the minority peoples.  In the last three months of 2015, it conducted 92 distinct attacks against minority groups in northern Burma.  In western Burma, the army has sustained the concentration camp housing for the country’s Muslim population – imposing starvation and disease on children, women and families.

Despite the cold reality, there are some minor signs of progress.  For instance, the leaders of numerous community-based organizations (CBO)  providing health and education support to their ethnic peoples no longer live  under a death threat from the military.   These organizations, such as Dr Cynthia’s Mae Tao clinic, Backpack Health Worker Teams, Burma Medical Association and others based out of Mae Sot Thailand, have begun a dialogue aimed at merging the nascent health systems into a more effective and available regional network.

For the past 2 decades, the CBOs have forged an impressive record.  Drawing volunteers from the villages they serve, the CBOs have succeeded in providing health care where none exists.  Among other results, they’ve cut malaria mortality in half and reduced child mortality by at least three-quarters.

The CBOs have sought a ‘health convergence’ plan with the Burma authorities.  The plan aims to provide a standard of care that is consistent and available to all peoples.  These dialogues have produced stark differences in approaches and philosophies.

For instance, in the area of training traditional birth assistants (TBA), the regime’s approach reflects the centralized authority of the capital, where decisions emphasize a laborious, slow process and not results.  They advocate a three year training process where the graduates will experience 2-3 births by graduation time.  The CBOs, in contrast, have a proven curriculum that takes 6 months and gives TBA’s hands-on exposure to at least a dozen births.

There are two salient observations that come from this anecdote.

First is that the CBO’s remain a vital part of Burma’s social and support network to the minority peoples.  The Mae Tao clinic and its mobile extension, Backpack Health Worker Teams, will continue to treat over 230,000 patients a year.  They cannot and should not disappear.  These organizations, funded by international non-governmental organizations, will continue to need support for years to come.

Second is the fact that 5 years ago, there was no conversation between the CBOs and Burma’s government agencies.  In fact, the regime would have arrested or shot the CBO representatives if they crossed paths.  The fact that they are having conversations is positive progress.

The Chinese philosopher stated that the “journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.   Burma’s recent elections represent a step along that path.  But it’s an early step and not the final step toward a Burma society that is free and honors the liberties of all people.