EU hails Burma ‘progress’ despite ethnic violence

For the first time in 20 years, Europe’s leaders have lifted sanctions on Burma’s authoritarian government. But bloody riots by Buddhist gangs cast doubt on the country’s future.

In the middle of a crowded street, a man lies hunched and still. His flesh is charred and his injuries are severe, but police and bystanders seem oblivious to the poor man’s plight. ‘Pour water on him,’ suggests a voice from the crowd. The response is shocking: ‘Let him die. No water for him.’

This newly released footage was filmed in the Burmese town of Meiktila, where ethnic tensions have erupted into violent, hate-fuelled riots. Spurred on by the speeches of a charismatic monk, gangs of nationalistic Buddhists roam the streets, beating members of the Muslim minority and torching their houses, shops and mosques. Some victims have been stabbed or hacked to death by bloodthirsty mobs. Others – the man in the video among them – were deliberately set on fire.

Burma is no stranger to violence and suffering. While most of its neighbours have enjoyed steady economic growth in recent decades, this Southeast Asian nation remains underdeveloped, with 32% of the population living in poverty. A corrupt and brutally repressive government has stunted the country’s progress while hoarding the profits from its plentiful reserves of oil, metals, gas and precious stones.

Since 2010, however, when the government finally declared an end to a 48-year period of military rule, this troubled country has seemed to be on the path towards a brighter future.

Last year Burma held its first meaningful and competitive elections, and the result was a resounding endorsement for democracy activists. Aung San Suu Kyi, a heroine to human rights campaigners around the world, was elected to parliament after 15 years spent under house arrest – although the government remains in the hands of former military rulers.

Yesterday, European Union leaders recognised the country’s progress towards political freedom by lifting the economic sanctions in place since 1990. But the recent ethnic conflict has thrown a dark shadow over this development, with the charity Human Rights Watch claiming that the government was complicit in the massacre of innocent Muslims.

Dealing with the enemy

As armed mobs spread racially-motivated death and destruction, is this really the right time to reintroduce Burma into the international family of civilised nations? At best, the government is powerless to protect its people; at worst it supports a campaign of ethnic cleansing. We must not allow these monstrous tyrants a shred of legitimacy, some say.

But Aung San Suu Kyi, who has supported the sanctions for decades, believes that it is time to let them go: ‘I don’t want to rely on external factors forever to bring about national reconciliation,’ she said. If we keep the current government isolated, how can we hope to influence them towards full democracy and human rights?

You Decide

  1. Should we refuse to have diplomatic or trade links with countries who commit human rights abuses?
  2. ‘A government is at least partly responsible for every crime that happens under its rule.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?


  1. Write a short profile of Aung San Suu Kyi, explaining why she is a hero to human rights activists around the world.
  2. Burma is often said to suffer from the ‘resource curse’. Do some research and explain briefly what this means.

Some People Say...

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.’ Sun Tzu”

What do you think?

Q & A

Do I really need to know about a tiny country on the other side of the world?
Burma is far from tiny: its population of 48 million is roughly the same as England’s. And although it is poor, natural resources like oil could make it an increasingly important country in the coming decades. But the main reason people are interested in Burma is because of humanitarian concern.
I hear about a new atrocity every day. Why is Burma special?
Until recently, Burma regularly ranked towards the bottom of indexes of democracy and press freedom. But democracy activists like Aung San Suu Kyi have remained vocal, and their long fight against authoritarianism has inspired many people around the world.

Word Watch

Charismatic monk
Ashin Wirathu has become famous for his inflammatory online broadcasts, in which he accuses Muslims of plotting to take over Burma and eradicate Buddhism from the country.
Buddhism is normally considered to be a religion that particularly focuses on pacifism and tolerance, but Buddhist monks have been prominent among the rioters.
Military rule
After over a century of rebellion, Burma gained independence from the British Empire in 1948. Originally it was a democratic republic, but after a military coup in 1962 the government fell under the sway of a superstitious, xenophobic and repressive form of socialism. A prosperous nation suddenly fell into ruin and soon became one of the poorest nations in the world.
Ethnic cleansing
Eradicating a particular ethnicity or social group from an area by murder, persecution and forced deportation. Racist rulers have attempted to do this for all of recorded history, but the term has only been widely used since the Bosnian genocide of the early 1990s.

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