04/27/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Towards a Sustainable Peace: Demilitarization and Nonviolence in Burma

How can we best support a transition towards full reform in Burma? How might we best support human rights there? Isn't the first step a full freedom from fear that necessitates an elimination of the eminent threat of violence? The answers may not be simple, but there are certain steps that are. Tom Andrews' recent articles in the Washington Post (here) and The Hill (here) call for a continuance of sanctions against Burma/Myanmar. He sees the maintenance of sanctions as an important tool to continue the reform process. I'm tended to think that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a more authoritative voice with which to speak on the issue of sanctions, and think that if there is going to be advocacy for a solution it should focus on the provision of the needs of the victims of fighting and on a cessation of violence.

It is hard to overstate the degree of distrust present in Burma's central government and its minority nationalities. The violence and abuse there is tearing a region asunder. The violence committed in northern Burma by the military is repellent and the needs of the civilian population there increase daily. While it is the Tatmadaw that initiated this latest phase of conflict in Kachin State, there is a history of both sides failing a human rights litmus test. Witness the persistent use of child soldiers by government and ethnic forces, including the KIA itself. Even if conflicts are resolved, there will be a sustained and considerable need for rebuilding trust and respect for its diverse population (consider the Rohingya, an ethnic group that not even major advocacy organizations have defended enough and with scant coverage in the major media). Burma needs to develop a consistent application for the rule of law, to build a virtually nonexistent infrastructure that can serve all of its peoples, to address the serious crisis in education and public health, and nearly countless other critical projects that people will suffer in the absence of having completed. None of these things can be addressed without resolving the continuing conflicts around the borders of Burma.

Let us note that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has endorsed the suspension of sanctions by the EU and has also maintained her calls for an end to all armed hostilities and for the release of the remaining prisoners of conscience. The fact of the matter is that transition processes are often uneven, frequently feature reversals, and are always bumpy. Witness the evolution of South Africa in removing the binds of apartheid or the fitful struggles in Cambodia towards reconciliation after civil war.

While it may be a necessary element of the process to maintain some sanctions until there is progress with political prisoners and other parts of the reform process, it is imperative that there be a demilitarization of the conflict regions and an embrace of a nonviolent process. International observers, trusted third-party negotiators, and the validation of local interests will all need to be part of the process. But it is difficult to imagine a way forward with all sides continuing to hold weapons that can be reintroduced at any time. Burma's conflict regions must disarm and demilitarize. There is only peace in nonviolence.

I have dedicated much of my life to working to advance the causes of human rights and basic dignity of all but have, as is inevitable, become attached to some particular causes within the broader concerns for justice. As the child of a very Irish family in Pittsburgh, it was unsurprising that I became concerned by The Troubles in Northern Ireland after watching the religious-based strife that was tearing communities asunder. After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, acrimony continued by both Unionist and Republican splinter groups and confidence-building was shaky in trying to untangle a conflict with a forty year history. I couldn't speak for all sides, but I could speak as a Catholic and as a person of Irish ancestry and speaking out is what was necessary. On March 23, 2000, the International Herald Tribune published my call for there to be no funds for armed struggle and no support for violent struggle (a reprint can be found on the HRAC blog or here). The time for deciding who was "most wrong" was over. The only way to proceed was for both sides to disarm as a necessary step, the first step and not the last, in confidence-building. Is it really impossible to propose an observed and sanctioned move towards nonviolence in Burma? Northern Ireland still has flare-ups and problems and the issues facing Burma are of a much greater magnitude. But I still remain firm in my conviction that there can be a conspiracy of hope and a move towards a politics of peace.