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After more than five decades of military rule, Burma's new government is undertaking high-level policy reforms in its desire to emerge from international isolation. Since the nominally civilian government came to power in March 2011, the Parliament has passed a number of laws which have allowed public demonstrations, and liberalized restrictions on the media, the Internet, and trade unions. Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have been allowed to re-register and will run in the by-elections in April 2012. Despite the progressive rhetoric, the implementation of these policies will be a long-term effort, requiring the support of the international community.
Until the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, international assistance to Burma was extremely limited. While the UK and the European Union have increased funding in recent years, the U.S. has provided minimal humanitarian assistance inside the country. Burma receives an average of less than $5 in international assistance per person – compared with $48 per capita for Cambodia, and $66 per capita for Laos. It is now time for the U.S. government to capitalize on the reforms and significantly increase humanitarian assistance and support the growing capacity of local civil society actors.
Current Humanitarian Situation
Despite the promise of reforms, humanitarian needs persist. An estimated 500,000 people are displaced by conflict in eastern Burma and another 800,000 Muslims in western Burma, known as the Rohingya, are stateless and lack the most basic of human rights. On June 3, 2012, inter-communal violence erupted between the Rakhine and the Rohingya communities, which quickly evolved into large-scale, state-sponsored violence against the Rohingya. Rohingya who subsequently fled were denied refuge by Bangladesh, and urgent measures must be taken to protect this vulnerable population. A number of conflicts with ethnic armed groups also persist, and have forced approximately 3 million Burmese to flee to neighboring countries. The government will need to invest significant political effort to translate various ceasefires with these groups into sustainable peace. For refugees from eastern Burma, return to their homes may not be realized due to the extensive use of landmines by all parties to the conflict.
Throughout 2009, RI met actively with State Department officials and Congressional appropriators to encourage greater aid for the Burmese people. Because of our leadership on this issue, Congress provided some $36 million for democracy and humanitarian programs largely inside Burma, a major shift in U.S. policy that had previously limited the amount of humanitarian funding available for people inside Burma.