TIME Burma

Inside the Kachin War Against Burma

High school and university students receive drill instructions in Laiza, which lies in a Kachin Independence Army–controlled part of Kachin state, in Burma, on Nov. 10, 2014.
High school and university students receive drill instructions in Laiza, which lies in a Kachin Independence Army–controlled part of Kachin state, in Burma, on Nov. 10, 2014. Adam Dean—Panos for TIME

Burma's rulers have promised cease-fires with various ethnic groups that have been battling the military, in some cases for decades. But in the hills of Kachin, peace is further away than ever

Morning mist hangs low on the jungle as Kachin cadets stand to sleepy attention on this November morning, clutching slabs of wood whittled into the contours of rifles. Not far away in the mountains of northern Burma, soldiers in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) face off against Burmese positions, a state of intermittent war that has prevailed since a 17-year cease-fire between the ethnic militia and the Burmese army collapsed in 2011.

The 162 cadets training at the military academy in rebel-held Laiza are hardly a fighting force — they are high school and college kids undergoing their first guerrilla training. Still, the KIA, which controls chunks of land near the Burmese border with China, needs all the recruits it can get.

“The Burmese want to steal all our land, but they will never succeed,” says Hkawng Lum, a student from Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital that is under Burmese army control. The 19-year-old has been training at the military academy for one month and will eventually return behind enemy lines to serve in the KIA reserve. “Every Kachin,” he says, “will fight to the death.”

On Nov. 19, a heavy artillery attack by the Burmese army overwhelmed another KIA training camp in Laiza, killing 23 officers in training — a body blow to ethnic rebels who have been forced to manufacture their own knockoff rifles and land mines. The assault, which killed cadets from several ethnic groups, came as the KIA and the Burmese army had been holding fitful peace talks, even as skirmishes had proliferated across the state.

“We knew that the Burmese army was full of tricks,” says a Kachin Independence Organization information officer. “The peace process is dead.”

The United Nationalities Federal Council, which represents a diversity of Burma’s many ethnic groups, said that the shelling had “caused a tremendous obstacle in building trust.” The Nov. 19 attack came just days after Burma had hosted an international summit attended by national leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama. On his second visit to the country in two years, Obama warned that Burma’s much lauded reforms were by “no means complete or irreversible.”

Since Burma’s military junta began a transition to a quasi-civilian government three years ago, its rulers have promised an imminent national cease-fire with various ethnic armed groups that have been battling the Burmese military practically since the nation gained independence from the British in 1948. National reconciliation is seen as key in helping the nation’s economy develop but the ethnic militias are wary of giving up autonomy to the centralized Burmese state. Some truces have been struck, although not with the 10,000-strong KIA. Even in areas technically under armistice, continuing clashes undercut talk of peace. It escapes no one’s notice that some of the worst fighting is occurring in regions that boast some of Burma’s most-plentiful natural resources.

“When the Burmese army talks about a cease-fire, they mean stopping shooting for a short while,” says Manam Tu Shan, a 67-year-old Kachin church deacon in Laiza. “But what we mean by a cease-fire is living peacefully and being able to practice our traditions without the Burmese interfering.”

Although Burma is dominated by the Bamar, or Burman, ethnic group, some 40% of the country’s population is composed of dozens of ethnic minorities — the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan, the Wa, the Chin, the Mon and the Rakhine, among many others. When the country, now known officially as Myanmar, gained independence, it did so as a federal union in which several ethnic groups were given the option to secede if they were unhappy with their new state.

But an army coup in 1962 ushered in nearly half a century of brutal military rule. Most generals were Bamar chauvinists who won their stripes by battling various ethnic militias in the eastern and northern fringes of the country. Some of that strife, which displaced millions of ethnic villagers and subjected them to institutionalized rape and forced labor by Burmese soldiers, has been described as the longest-running civil war on earth. The current Burmese government has also been criticized for its treatment of more than a million Muslim Rohingya, a largely stateless group that lives in western Burma. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in pogroms over the past couple years and 140,000 have been sequestered in ghetto-like camps.

Bleakness and Bounty
The KIA headquarters in Laiza feels like a Wild West town, but with none of the romance of that description. Until the turn of this century, Laiza was little more than a dusty border outpost with China. But as the Burmese army pressed in, the KIA stronghold took on outsize importance. Laiza is now a collection of cement-block buildings with stores selling Chinese plastic goods, pirated DVDs and the latest in army-camouflage fashion. Heroin and methamphetamines are a scourge, as is human trafficking across the border with China.

If the town is bleak, the hills surrounding Laiza, and spreading across Kachin, are some of the most bountiful on earth. There is jade, gold, timber and hydropower. Banana plantations dot the landscape, as does the odd golf course, a relic of colonial sportsmanship enjoyed by the KIA top brass. There are also more than 100,000 Kachin who have fled the fighting to live in remote refugee camps. To survive, some villagers pan for gold for Chinese-owned companies, their pay meager even by the standards of one of Asia’s poorest nations.

While the Bamar are Buddhist, the Kachin, like several major ethnic groups in Burma, practice Christianity. There are no pagodas in Laiza, just as there are no churches in Naypyidaw, the bunkered Burmese capital that the generals unveiled in 2005. Although the Kachin are proud of their martial prowess — Kachin soldiers fought alongside the Allies in northern Burma during World War II and were known to string the teeth of their enemies around their necks — they have been excluded from the Burmese Defense Services Academy (DSA), which trains the nation’s next generation of military elite. (Before the army takeover in 1962, one headmaster of the DSA was Kachin.) These days, the highest-ranking Kachin in the Burmese army is a mere captain.

Laiza itself is deeply militarized, with some men carrying geriatric rifles that look like they did their best work during World War II. Most of the bullets are Chinese imports, and they are precious. At the Laiza military academy, Major Kyaw Htwi admits that live-ammunition training is too expensive for common practice. Some of the machine guns on hand are held together with duct tape. But the major has taught Kachin cadets for 21 years and is confident of his charges’ ability to adapt to jungle warfare.

“The Burmese want the ethnics to become extinct,” he says, as a soldier pulls a Kachin flag up a flagpole and salutes the dusty pennant. “But we will never give up our struggle.”

Days later came the Burmese army attack. There is no peace now in the hills of Kachin.

TIME Burma

Burma Counts Down to Elections But Democracy Remains a Distant Dream

Adam Dean's photos capture a still impoverished Burma as it stumbles through democratic transition, and ethnic strife, one year before landmark polls

In late October or early November next year Burma will go to the polls. However, the nation, officially now known as Myanmar, remains a long way from realizing true democracy.

Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 years under house arrest since returning to her homeland in 1988, was elected to parliament in April 2012, but remains constitutionally barred from becoming president.

In shunning the pro-democracy icon, Burma’s indomitable military demonstrates that it continues to influence all aspects of life.

The easing of Western economic sanctions has seen Burma’s long-cloistered economy pried open — cellphones and ATMs are now commonplace — but reform has largely been confined to sectors that benefit the generals and their cronies.

In ethnic border regions, rebel groups continue to battle the Burmese Army for greater autonomy, despite a raft of peace deals. Human rights abuses continue unabated; some advocacy groups say they have even increased.

In Burma’s western Rakhine State, the much-maligned Rohingya Muslim minority faces strict curbs on marriage, movement, population growth and education. Over 100,000 of this wretched community fester in squalid ghettos following pogroms by radical Buddhists. Access to food and healthcare is severely limited.

For them, as will the 60% of Burma’s 53 million population who continue to struggle in dire poverty, reforms have so far promised much but delivered little. For the past two years, photographer Adam Dean has been documenting Burma’s stumbling transition.

TIME Burma

Obama Gives Blunt Assessment of Reforms in Burma

Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, walks out with Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, at her home to begin their joint news conference in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 14, 2014 Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

Suu Kyi has been reluctant to address the abuse of minority Rohingya Muslims who are deeply disdained by most people in Burma

(RANGOON, BURMA) — President Barack Obama gave a blunt assessment Friday of the need for further reform in Burma’s move toward democracy, weighing into sensitive controversies over the treatment of religious minorities and a prohibition keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

Suu Kyi, released four years ago from more than two decades of confinement, is now a member of Burma’s Parliament but is unable to run in next year’s presidential election because of a constitutional rule barring anyone with strong allegiances to a foreign national from standing for the presidency. Suu Kyi’s sons are British, as was her late husband.

“I don’t understand a provision that would bar somebody from running for president because of who their children are,” Obama said, with Suu Kyi by his side. “That doesn’t make much sense to me.”

Obama and Suu Kyi took questions from reporters from the back patio of the house where she spent much of her time under house arrest. The two were warm and affectionate in their interactions, sharing a long embrace after their opening statements and joking with each other throughout their remarks.

Obama has been pressing Burma’s leaders to amend the Constitution, but has been careful to not directly endorse his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate as the country’s next president. He also raised an issue that has led to criticism for the opposition icon — her reluctance to address the abuse of minority Rohingya Muslims who are deeply disdained by most people in Burma.

“Discrimination against the Rohingya or any other religious minority I think does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long term wants to be,” Obama said. “Ultimately that is destabilizing to a democracy.” Burma is also known as Myanmar.

Obama and Suu Kyi met briefly Thursday on the sidelines of a regional summit in the capital city of Naypyitaw. On Friday, Obama flew to the city of Rangoon to hold more substantial talks with Suu Kyi and also toured the Secretariat Building, where Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, was assassinated by political rivals in 1947.

Obama had broadly embraced Burma’s move away from a half-century of military rule, suspending U.S. sanctions and rewarding the country with high-level visits from American officials. But Burma has stalled in fulfilling its promises of political and economic reforms, and in some cases has lost ground.

“We shouldn’t deny that Burma today is not the same as Burma five years ago,” Obama said. “But the process is still incomplete.”

Both Obama and Suu Kyi warned against complacency in the move toward democracy. Suu Kyi described the process as going through “a bumpy patch.”

Suu Kyi opened the press conference by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Burma. “We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship,” she said.

Obama notably held his news conference on his visit to the Southeast Asian nation with Suu Kyi , not the country’s president. Obama said he told President Thein Sein that he will be judging whether reforms are being fully realized first off by whether next year’s election is held on time and whether the constitutional amendment process reflects inclusion.

Suu Kyi said it’s flattering to have a constitutional provision written with her in mind but it’s not how the law should be written. The 69-year-old said she and her supporters are working to change it and welcome Obama’s support.

“The Constitution says all citizens should be treated as equals and this is discrimination on the grounds of my children,” she said.

TIME Burma

If Obama Only Talks About One Thing in Burma It Must Be the Rohingya

Burmese President Thein Sein, right, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama after the latter arrived at the Myanmar International Convention Center in the national capital Naypyidaw on Nov. 12, 2014 Christpohe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images

TIME Writer-Reporter focusing on Southeast Asia.

The country's future may depend on it

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in November 2012, he found it abuzz with promise. Sanctions had been eased, political prisoners released and Rangoon hotels were teeming with foreign executives eager to harness the nation’s abundant natural resources, cheap workforce and enviable location between regional titans India and China.

So giddy was the postdictatorship atmosphere that Obama planted an agonizingly inappropriate kiss on Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Not that any of the traditionally conservative Burmese minded, however, because the democracy icon was finally free after 15 years of house arrest and relishing life as an elected lawmaker.

But on Wednesday, Obama returned to a very different Burma. Economic liberalization has proved woefully inadequate and human-rights abuses continue unabated. Journalists must once again muzzle their criticism or face persecution. The military continues its assaults on ethnic rebels and, as Suu Kyi said last week, the democratic transition is “stalling.”

“Progress has not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition began four years ago,” Obama told the Irrawaddy magazine before his arrival in Naypyidaw for the East Asia Summit, a meeting of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members plus other world powers including China, Russia, India and the U.S. “In some areas there has been a slowdown in reforms, and even some steps backward.”

Visitors to Burma may find this surprising. Rangoon is a cacophony of building work, and the battered death-trap taxis of yore have been replaced by Japanese and South Korean imports. Illicit money changers have been swapped for ATMs. Cellphone SIM cards are no longer restricted or prohibitively expensive, meaning the once ubiquitous phone kiosks, where ordinary Burmese queued up to pay for a few minutes’ use of a fixed-line handset, lie largely idle — an anachronism for tourist snaps.

Yet this progress is a mere facade. “Aung San Suu Kyi may say that reform has stalled, but the reality is that it has regressed,” says Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of civil-society organizations. Like many longtime democracy activists, she still complains of “surveillance, scrutiny, threats and intimidation.”

Burma is unusual amongst authoritarian states embarking on reform, in that the same figures who ran the previous military dictatorship remain in charge today, and so practically all changes have benefited this coterie. Foreign direct investment, for example, has been confined to the extractive industries that are the purview of tycoons with military connections.

“The changes put in place by the [President] Thein Sein administration are not, for the most part, liberal market reforms, but simply expanded permissions and concessions, often given to the crony firms that dominate parts of the economy,” says Sean Turnell, a professor and expert on Burmese economics at Australia’s Macquarie University. In fact, he adds, “protectionist and antireform sentiment is building.”

Certainly, there is no significant economic legislation pending. Foreign banks have been allowed to set up shop, but can only work with other foreigners, using foreign currency and cannot offer retail services. This means the industry remains plagued by crippling inefficiencies.

Meanwhile, some 70% of Burma’s 53 million population toil in agriculture, where there have likewise not been any meaningful reforms. Poverty, exploitation and land grabs are rife. “The economic circumstances of Myanmar’s majority rural population are now marginally worse than before the reforms were launched,” says Turnell.

The media is once again manacled. The death of noted journalist Aung Kyaw Naing in military custody last month has been the nadir of a year that has also seen 10 reporters jailed. “Obama’s got to see it as another indication of sharply deteriorating press freedoms,” says David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. In fact, of the 11 reformist pledges Thein Sein made to Obama back during his last visit, says Mathieson, “only about half of them have been met.”

Political reform is also backsliding. Suu Kyi will most likely romp home in next year’s national polls, provided they are as unfettered as the by-election that saw her enter the national legislature amid a landslide for her National League for Democracy party in April 2012. However, she remains constitutionally barred from the nation’s highest office. Negotiations to amend these restrictions — owing to her marriage to a Briton and sons who are foreign nationals — have broken down. Asked what the response would be should Obama try to press the issue, a Burmese government spokesman deemed constitutional reform “an internal affair.”

But it is the plight of the locally despised Rohingya Muslim population that is most pressing (not even the 69-year-old Suu Kyi has the moral fortitude to speak up for them). More than 100,000 of this wretched community fester in squalid displacement camps following attacks by radical Buddhists. They suffer restrictions on movement, marriage and education and thousands are planning to flee during the current “sailing season” on rickety boats to perceived safe havens like Malaysia, as thousands have before them. Many die every day.

However, analysts believe there is a political element to this humanitarian catastrophe. Resentment toward Muslims is a relatively recent phenomenon, with sporadic attacks on Muslim communities punctuating the past three years. Some say the unrest is being inculcated and encouraged in order to give the military continued justification for its wide-ranging powers. Government complicity in recent sectarian clashes has been alleged by the U.N. and Human Rights Watch (though furiously denied by Naypyidaw). And the tactic has been used before: anti-Muslim violence also curiously erupted amid the 1988 pro-democracy rallies.

Discontent is also brewing over myriad issues domestically: garment workers strike over pay and conditions; victims of land grabs are descending on the capital; activists protest Chinese-owned mines; farmers rally against dams that ravage the environment. But sectarian violence, or the threat of it, would be the trump card that would allow the army to suspend reforms. Military spending has already increased in absolute terms during Thein Sein’s time in office. Now there are rumors that army chief Min Aung Hlaing is maneuvering for a run at the presidency. If so, there will be precious little hope for reforming the military, which is the single greatest impediment to tackling Burma’s abysmal human-rights record.

The Rohingya crisis is a gift to Burmese generals hoping to shore up their positions and the military’s, and for that reason the Rohingya lie at the core of the Burma’s economic and political transition. Obama “is dealing with a time bomb,” says Khin Ohmar. “He may face resentment for saying something about the Rohingya, but he has to.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Burma

Burma Falls Short on Key Reform Pledges to U.S.

Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi
U.S. President Barack Obama and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speak to press at her residence in Yangon, Myanmar, on Nov. 19, 2012 Carolyn Kaster—AP

The quasi-civilian government has progressed, but deep problems remain

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma, officially now known as Myanmar, in 2012 celebrated the nation’s historic shift from military rule. But as Obama returns Wednesday, optimism over economic and political reformshas faded. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has questioned what’s been accomplished in the last two years.

The answer is mixed. On the eve of Obama’s first visit, Burmese President Thein Sein made 11 policy pledges on human rights concerns, ties with North Korea and anti-Muslim violence. The quasi-civilian government has progressed, but deep problems remain.

An Associated Press review:


GOAL: Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons.

UPDATE: In early 2012, the government agreed to the first Red Cross prison visits in seven years. Spokesman Ewan Watson said the agency has visited 28 detention sites this year. Rights activists say ill treatment of detainees persists.


GOAL: Invite the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in Burma.

UPDATE: The government issued the invitation in November 2012 but has refused to let the agency open an office to monitor human rights. U.N. staff visit on a rotating basis.


GOAL: Allow blacklisted people to enter and leave the country.

UPDATE: Formerly blacklisted human rights activists, journalists and others have been able to visit. Exiled Burmese dissidents have returned. But some returning exiles have been unable to secure Burmese citizenship; members of the Burmese diaspora say they have been denied visas. Some freed political prisoners face travel restrictions.


GOAL: Initiate a process to assess the criminality of remaining political prisoners.

UPDATE: The government says all political prisoners have been freed. The U.S. says more than 1,300 have been released in the past three years. But 27 prisoners are still held, according to the main nongovernmental group tracking the issue. Rights groups say hundreds of new dissenters and peaceful protesters have been detained in the past year.


GOAL: Pursue a durable cease-fire in Kachin state, scene of the largest ethnic rebellion. Pursue sustainable political solutions with ethnic minorities.

UPDATE: Thein Sein’s administration has held peace talks with an array of ethnic rebel groups. In northern Kachin state more than 100,000 villagers have been displaced by fighting since 2011. Clashes escalated in October between the army and ethnic Shan and Karen rebels.


GOAL: Take decisive action in Rakhine state to prevent communal violence, hold perpetrators to account and meet the humanitarian needs of the people. Address contentious political issues.

UPDATE: Attacks by Buddhist extremists since mid-2012 have left hundreds of minority Rohingya Muslims dead and 140,000 trapped in dire conditions in camps. More than 100,000 Rohingya have fled Burma by boat — with departures reported to be accelerating. Hundreds of the migrants have died at sea.

Authorities have obstructed humanitarian access, leading to preventable deaths. The main aid group in Rakhine state, Doctors Without Borders, was expelled in February.

A draft government plan would enable the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma to seek a form of citizenship but only if they categorize themselves as “Bengalis,” which they object to as it implies they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Those denied citizenship would be put in camps and face deportation.


GOAL: Expedite negotiations with international humanitarian organizations for broader access to conflict-affected areas.

UPDATE: Hundreds of thousands of members of ethnic minorities remain displaced in border regions. The International Committee of the Red Cross has opened offices in Shan and Kachin states and been allowed into conflict zones.


GOAL: Sign the Additional Protocol to the U.N. nuclear agency’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.

UPDATE: Burma signed the protocol in September 2013, but has yet to ratify it. The agreement requires the government to declare all nuclear facilities and materials and allow greater scrutiny by inspectors.


GOAL: Abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 prohibiting weapons imports from North Korea.

UPDATE: U.S. officials say Burma has taken significant steps, but has not cut all military ties to North Korea.


GOAL: Strive for more open and accountable government.

UPDATE: The government has fired hundreds of civil servants for petty corruption. Burma has applied to join an international agreement intended to ensure full disclosure of taxes and other payments from oil, gas and mining companies. But reporting of revenues by state-owned enterprises, including on jade and timber, remains patchy. The military and cronies of the former junta dominate the economy.


GOAL: Combat human trafficking.

UPDATE: For three years, Burma has stayed off the annual U.S. list of the worst offenders failing to combat human trafficking. But there’s evidence Burma’s security forces are profiting from the mass departure of Rohingya Muslims by extracting payments from those fleeing.

TIME Burma

Top Legal Academics Want Burmese Generals Indicted for War Crimes

Guards of honour salute during an event marking the anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs Mausoleum in Yangon
Burmese soldiers salute during an event marking the anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs' Mausoleum in Rangoon on July 19, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

The abuses are described as "too grave to be ignored"

Leading generals in Burma’s powerful military should be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to researchers who claim to have accumulated enough evidence to mount a successful prosecution under international law.

A four-year investigation by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School focused on an offensive in the eastern part of Burma, also known as Myanmar, in 2005 and 2006. The study documented soldiers firing mortars at villages, slaughtering fleeing villagers, destroying homes and food, laying land mines indiscriminately and forcing civilians to work without pay.

On Friday, a legal memorandum, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Eastern Myanmar, was released that implicates three commanders in international crimes as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

“These are serious allegations that demand a determined, good faith response by the Myanmar government and military,” said Tyler Giannini, co-director of the clinic. “The abuses perpetrated by the military have been too widespread, too persistent, and too grave to be ignored.”

Burma has been transitioning from military dictatorship to civilian government since 2011; however, many former junta figures remain key players in the new quasi-democratic administration headed by President Thein Sein.

Asked about the war-crimes report, a government spokesman told the New York Times, “Both the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] and ethnic armed groups might have violated human rights.”

Read next: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on Burma’s Human-Rights Abuses Is Appalling.

TIME Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on Burma’s Human-Rights Abuses Is Appalling

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi listens as reporter asks her a question during a news conference in Yangon
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi listens as reporter asks her a question during a news conference at the National League for Democracy party head office in Rangoon on Nov. 5, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

The Nobel laureate's refusal to condemn documented atrocities suggests that political calculation has trumped human rights in her thinking

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is not happy with the pace of democratic change in Burma, officially now known as Myanmar. On Wednesday, the Nobel Peace Prize winner gave a press conference to denounce the “stalling” reform process.

“The U.S. government has been too optimistic,” she said. “What significant reform steps have been taken in the last 24 months?”

This remark comes days before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Rangoon, and after talks to reform the nation’s much maligned constitution broke down between Suu Kyi, Burma’s powerful military generals, the current military-backed government and various ethnic leaders.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming President in next year’s elections because she was married to a British man and has two sons who are foreign citizens. It also guarantees 25% of legislative seats to military appointees. Since more than 75% of lawmakers are required to enact any constitutional change, this gives the generals a de facto parliamentary veto.

Talks aimed at amending these provisions, which were shamelessly included with the sole purpose of barring Suu Kyi from the nation’s highest office, have gone nowhere, and the 69-year-old is attempting one last throw of the dice — appealing to Obama to put pressure on current President Thein Sein, himself a former junta general.

“Democratic reform would not be successful alone with the parliament,” Suu Kyi told assembled media.

Nobody would argue against Burma’s current constitution desperately needing revision, or pretend that reforms haven’t stalled. In fact, when Obama returns to Burma next week, he will find one of his few foreign policy successes in tatters.

“The hope and the optimism we had in 2012, when the country was opening up, has all been squandered,” Aung Zaw, managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, tells TIME, lamenting a “backsliding reform process” akin to watching “a train wreck in slow motion.”

Even so, Suu Kyi’s condemnation is curious.

It comes after her steadfast refusal to criticize the military or the government for myriad human-rights abuses. In Burma’s west, for example, more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims languish in squalid displacement camps, but Suu Kyi repudiates evidence-based allegations of ethnic cleansing by Human Rights Watch and instead calls the crisis an “immigration issue.”

In northernmost Kachin state, civilians face “attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscation, the recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor and portering.” That’s been documented by the U.N., but Suu Kyi has refused to condemn those atrocities. Her silence is so pointed that 23 local NGOs signed an open letter of protest.

Other causes of concern, like the 10 journalists jailed this year on the flimsiest of pretenses, are brushed aside with platitudinous references to the “rule of law.” Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s own Rule of Law Parliamentary Committee has achieved “nothing at all,” says Aung Zaw.

“We would’ve liked to have seen Aung San Suu Kyi speak on human-rights issues in a more forthright way,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of the Fortify Rights advocacy group. “She’s issued equivocal statements on serious human-rights violations, in some cases amounting to crimes against humanity.”

In fact, when a high-level delegation from Human Rights Watch came to Burma earlier this year for landmark talks, they met with senior government officials including the President but were snubbed by Suu Kyi.

And that’s not all. Suu Kyi’s baffling behavior goes beyond the area of human rights.

In April 2013, peaceful protesters blockaded a Chinese-owned copper mine near Monywa, around 450 miles north of Rangoon. The police attacked them using white phosphorous, leaving dozens with horrific burns, including traditionally sacrosanct Buddhist monks.

Suu Kyi headed the investigation commission but found that the mine must continue operations or else risk “hurting Burma,” despite the fact that it is desecrating the environment, was set up without scrutiny by the junta, and provides no jobs for local people. In unprecedented scenes, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader was harangued by furious locals.

Suu Kyi has certainly experienced enormous personal sacrifice. Since returning to her homeland in 1988, she has spent 15 years under house arrest, not even being able to see her beloved husband Michael Aris before he died.

But this is also why her current aloofness is so painful to behold.

“The NLD under her leadership has had big question marks,” says Aung Zaw, “and they misread the whole situation.”

In August 2011, Suu Kyi met Thein Sein for the first time, formally marking her belated return to mainstream politics. The following April, she and 42 NLD colleagues were elected to parliament in a landslide amid jubilant scenes.

The common perception among analysts is that some deal was struck to allow Suu Kyi to stand for election in exchange for muting her criticism of the generals. The presumption was that reforms would take baby steps forward. But, three years on, there has been no progress, and she is partly culpable.

When Suu Kyi finally gave her Nobel acceptance speech in June 2012 — the prize having been originally bestowed in 1991 during a period of house arrest — she said that “receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders.”

But her present recalcitrance suggests that her own political career may be more important, even if we accept the mitigation that it is for some vague greater good.

“There is no version of pragmatism that would make silence on human-rights atrocities defensible,” says Smith. “These are some of the most serious human-rights violations that can be committed.”

Admittedly, Suu Kyi has always said she is a politician, rather than a human-rights defender. But the truth today is that she is pretty awful at both.

TIME Burma

A Reporter’s Death Shows Just How Little Burma Has Changed

Than Dar, the wife of slain journalist Par Gyi, holds a family photograph showing herself, her husband and daughter posing with Aung San Suu Kyi at their home, in Yangon
Than Dar, the wife of slain journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, holds a family photograph showing herself, her husband and daughter posing with Aung San Suu Kyi at their home, in Rangoon, on Oct. 28, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Forget the heady talk of reform. Burma will never get anywhere so long as the military remains unaccountable

When Than Dar first approached authorities in mid-October to find her missing husband, he was already dead. In late September, Aung Kyaw Naing had been covering renewed fighting between a band of ethnic Karen rebels and the Burmese military near the Thai border when he disappeared.

“The last time I had contact with Aung Kyaw Naing was Sept. 22,” says Than Dar. “That’s the last time I was in contact with my husband.”

After covering the conflict in Burma’s Mon State, Aung Kyaw Naing (who was also known as Par Gyi) was supposed to join his wife and daughter for a family reunion in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. But he never made it.

On Sept. 30, the 49-year-old freelance reporter was taken into custody by an army infantry battalion in eastern Mon state. Days later, Aung Kyaw Naing had been killed by his captors and his corpse buried. The military admitted to killing the journalist in an unsigned email sent to Burma’s Interim Press Council on Oct. 23.

“He was treated not as a citizen,” Kyaw Min Swe, general secretary of the Interim Press Council, tells TIME. “Every citizen has a fundamental right to be protected under the law.”

The shocking death of Aung Kyaw Naing comes weeks ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Burma — formally known as Myanmar — to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit this month in the capital Naypyidaw.

Just two years ago Obama made his first, historic trip to the country, when it was grappling with fresh political and economic reforms after decades of military dictatorship. Now, with a year to go until widely anticipated elections, analysts say the country is now rapidly backsliding into the throes of authoritarian rule.

“Everyone in Rangoon has come to the conclusion that the reforms have either stalled or are starting to reverse,” David Mathieson, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, tells TIME.

The peace process aimed at ending decades of civil war is stalling, while the nascent press freedoms that served as a hallmark of the reforms are failing to protect journalists. In the past year alone, President Thein Sein’s government has locked up 10 journalists under various pretexts. But the death of Aung Kyaw Naing stands as one of the harshest indictments of the country’s reformist narrative.

“It caps what has been a steady deterioration in press freedom conditions in the country over the past year and a half,” says Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I think it has raised questions about [Thein Sein’s] government’s entire reform agenda.”

But who was Aung Kyaw Naing and why was he killed? Like many journalists in the country, he began his career as an activist during the antigovernment demonstrations in 1988 and briefly worked as a bodyguard for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Later, Aung Kyaw Naing was among the many like-minded journalists and activists who congregated in exile in Mae Sot — a district of Thailand on the Burmese border. There, he documented human-rights abuses committed by the junta.

However, Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, contends that the reporter was in fact an insurgent in disguise and working as a communications officer for the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army’s (DKBA) political wing.

“When they arrested him, they found a map of the position of military troops in that area and an identification card issued by the DKBA,” Ye Htut, a spokesperson with the President’s office, tells TIME. After five days in military custody, the army claims the reporter was killed after he attempted to steal a soldier’s gun and escape.

According to his wife, an official at Mon state’s Kyaikmayaw police station told her that her husband had been severely abused and tortured. The DKBA denies that Aung Kyaw Naing was working for them, and activists and fellow journalists have also dismissed the army’s version of events.

“’Shot while trying to escape’ is the most hackneyed and disturbing cliché in the field of extrajudicial killings,” says Mathieson.

In reality, human-rights activists say Aung Kyaw Naing was likely killed for doing what was previously unthinkable in Burma before reforms began: reporting openly on the military.

After ruling the country with an iron fist for nearly a half-century, the Tatmadaw appeared to slacken its grip on power by allowing a quasi-civilian government to replace the junta in 2011. However, Burma’s most feared institution has remained outside of the reform process and continues to hit back fiercely at the slightest investigation into its shadowy dealings.

“The military hasn’t reformed whatsoever,” says Mathieson. “Burma can only change when the military changes.”

Than Dar agrees. “The army is doing whatever they like,” she says. “It is obvious that the military is not following the constitution or the rule of law. There is no guarantee of political change for democracy.”

Earlier this summer, five journalists were handed lengthy prison sentences along with hard labor for publishing an article about an alleged chemical-weapons factory in central Burma.

The case, along with Aung Kyaw Naing’s death, provides a brutal indication of what happens when the country’s relative press freedoms collide with the vested interests of the military.

Aung Kyaw Naing’s wife is now leading a campaign to open an investigation into her husband’s death. Officials have also promised to act, but the chances that an inquest will be carried out independently are slim.

“If you look back in the past, there were so many incidents like this, especially in the ethnic areas and the truth never came out,” said Than Dar.

Now, Than Dar faces an uphill battle with authorities to retrieve her husband’s body and an even tougher fight with the military to find out what exactly happened on Oct. 4. However, if the past is any indication as to what lies ahead, getting Burma’s armed forces to openly discuss their murky deals may prove impossible.

“I’m looking for justice,” says Than Dar. “But I’ll have to wait and see.”

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