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Burma, the scene of much suffering from last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis as well as long-running political repression and egregious human rights abuses, saw more turmoil last week when fighting broke out along the northeast border with China between an armed ethnic group and government troops deployed to secure the region.
United Nations officials estimate that as many as 30,000 civilians have been forced to flee the area, home to a large number of ethnic Chinese. The tensions add a new element to concerns over stability in the region, both among Burma’s neighbors and the greater international community.
The United States is conducting a broad review of its policies toward the government in Rangoon, in an effort to find the best way to bring democratic transition and respect for human rights for the Burmese people.
World attention has focused on the continued detention of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and 2,100 other political prisoners, but the review has multiple dimensions. Ethnic conflicts exploited by Burmese authorities pose challenges for the future of Burma, not only the recent fighting in the Kokang region but also as seen in the plight of Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority and others.
The U.S. has a great interest in seeing Burma promote stability by heeding the UN calls for Burma to free its political prisoners and hold a genuine dialogue among the Burmese authorities, representatives of the opposition and ethnic nationality leaders on a shared vision for the way forward in Burma. Taking positive steps toward a true, representative democracy would do much to end the isolation and conflict that has caused so much suffering there.