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Burma's Minorities Caution Against Embracing Military Government

General Mutu Saipo (C) from the Karen National Union talks with a member of the Burma government negotiation team during a welcome dinner ceremony at Sedona hotel in Rangoon, Burma, April 5, 2012.

As the United States prepares to relax sanctions on Burma in the wake of parliamentary by-elections, ethnic minorities say the military-led government continues to commit atrocities in the east of the country. Activists from Kachin and Karen minorities are urging Western countries to be more cautious in their moves to end Burma's isolation.

Kachin state in eastern Burma is home to a people still at war with the military government. The fighting has forced 60,000 people into refugee camps. Hton Wun, a 33-year-old mother of two, is among them.

"We were really afraid of soldiers coming inside the village," she said. "We couldn’t sleep at night, we were afraid of what would happen when we were asleep."

Minorities stress human rights issues

Burma’s ethnic minorities have long accused the government of repression and brutality. The government stays largely silent on the allegations of human rights abuses, but it is negotiating a ceasefire with the Kachin.

The Karen, another minority in the south and east, signed a cease-fire with the government in January after six decades of fighting. Zoya Phan grew up in refugee camps in the midst of the conflict. Her father was general secretary of the Karen National Union; he was assassinated in Thailand in 2008. Her mother was a fighter in the Karen armed wing. She now lives in London under political asylum.

"We were attacked with air bombs and airstrikes. Each time the bombs dropped on the ground, the ground would shake and we were just so horrified," said Phan.

Phan now works at the Burma Campaign UK, raising awareness of the plight of the country’s ethnic minorities.

"In Kachin state, the Burmese army has broken three cease-fire agreements in the past years. And the army continues attacking civilians. Women are being raped and men are also used as forced labor," she said.

Intent on spreading reforms

The jungles of eastern Burma are a long way from the street celebrations that have swept through Rangoon this week following the parliamentary by-elections. Official results show Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party took 43 of 45 seats. The apparent pace of change under current President Thein Sein has this week prompted the United States to ease financial and travel sanctions against the government.

"We are prepared to take steps towards, first, seeking agreement for a fully accredited ambassador in Rangoon in the coming days," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Activist Zoya Phan said the U.S. and its allies should be more cautious.

"It is very important for the West to maintain most of the key sanctions to encourage more positive reforms in Burma. At the moment, if the West lifted all key sanctions, it would be a mistake," she said.

Rapid changes are sweeping through parts of Burma; for the first time, citizens could get access to credit cards. Beyond the big cities, Burma’s minorities say they are yet to see the benefits of the West’s re-engagement with the military rulers.