This article originally appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog  as a special guest post.
By Lynn Yoshikawa
Traveling in Burma last month, it wasn’t hard to see that things really are changing in this beautiful but troubled country. Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi filled market stalls and hung proudly in the offices of local civil society groups – a remarkable change from the past, when possessing just one was a cause for arrest. Activists of all backgrounds spoke openly about politics, even in public spaces, without the usual hushed tones and glances over the shoulder.
Sadly, however, human rights abuses and corruption also continue in this “new Burma”. In the ethnic areas we visited – Kachin in the north, and Karen and Mon in the east – the optimism we heard in Yangon was muted. In Kachin, we visited church compounds where women and children sheltered in crowded assembly halls after military attacks destroyed their homes. In the east, we met a Baptist pastor running aid programs for displaced communities, who had been ordered by authorities to give up part of the church’s land to a private company.
These contradictions reflect the continuing tension between those who are leading Burma’s reforms, like President Thein Sein, and hardliners who see rapid change as a threat to national security. This struggle within the country’s ruling class will take time to resolve, and it will take decades before high-level reforms reach the people. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. can sit back and wait for change to be realized; quite the opposite is true.
Unlike in Burma’s previous regime, progressive voices are now emerging from within the government, ranging from parliamentarians to ministers to regional leaders. More importantly, there is a nascent, but growing, civil society in Burma – from groups providing humanitarian assistance in conflict areas, to human rights advocates pressing the government on military abuses and environmental threats.
To capitalize on this opening, and lend support to these progressive voices, the U.S. must engage the Burmese government at all levels. High-level diplomacy will be important, but meeting Burma’s humanitarian needs will also be vital. In 50 years of isolation, Burma has been wracked by conflict, hit by devastating natural disasters, and plagued by underdevelopment. USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance must, therefore, expand its humanitarian aid program to meet the needs of Burma’s half a million internally-displaced people and 800,000 stateless.
For the Burmese government to succeed with any reforms, it will also need significant technical assistance from the international community. The U.S. must loosen aid restrictions on Burma, which prohibit any aid to the government, to engage reform-minded leaders and civil servants – particularly teachers and health workers. Decades of “brain drain,” coupled with an archaic and inadequate education system, has left local capacity extremely low.
All of this is not to say that longstanding U.S. sanctions on Burma should be completely lifted. Indeed, the country’s continuing rights violations and unresolved civil conflicts show that reform will not happen overnight, and the U.S. should not withdraw pressure prematurely. But the steps outlined above show that there are other ways to meet the immediate needs of Burma’s people, and make reform real at last.