RANGOON—In the west, terrified villagers flee burning homes after an explosion of ethnic and religious violence. In the north, refugees from a civil war cower in chilly camps, desperately short on life’s basic necessities. And in dank jails, hundreds of political prisoners languish behind bars, wondering when they’ll ever be freed.
This is not the Burma that President Barack Obama will see when he becomes the first American head of state to visit this pagoda-studded country on Monday. He wants to encourage the stunning democratic transformation Burma has undergone since last year, but there are concerns his visit may be premature.
The nation’s warp-speed revolution is fragile. Its nascent transition has already been bloody. And much unfinished business remains: from repealing harsh laws that helped silence a generation of pro-democracy dissidents, to overhauling a political power structure still tipped heavily in favor of army rule.
“If President Obama doesn’t put his full weight behind further urgent reforms in Myanmar, this trip risks being an ill-timed presidential pat on the back for a regime that has looked the other way as violence rages, destroying villages and communities just in the last few weeks,” said Suzanne Nossel, the US-based director of Amnesty International.
White House officials cautioned Thursday that Obama’s visit to Myanmar, also known as Burma, should not be viewed as a “victory celebration.” They reiterated that urgent action is still needed, particularly on freeing political prisoners and ending the unrest in the western Arakan (Rakhine) State.
“This is a moment when we believe the Burmese leaders have put their feet on the right path and that it’s critical to us that we not miss the moment to influence them to keep going,” said Danny Russel, Obama’s top Asia adviser.
There is little doubt that the reforms in Burma have come quicker and gone farther than anyone here dared dream.
Just a few years ago, this was a place denigrated by Washington as an isolated “outpost of tyranny,” a country led by a xenophobic clique of army officers so distrustful of the West that they rejected foreign aid even when Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people in 2008.
Even when the junta ceded power to an elected government early last year, few considered the prospect of real change. The vote, boycotted by the main opposition, was considered neither free nor fair, and the new president, Thein Sein, was a former general.
But Thein Sein’s government surprised the world. It freed hundreds of political prisoners, though not all of them. It signed ceasefire deals with numerous rebel groups. It abolished a draconian system of media censorship. It revamped finance and investment laws.
Aung San Suu Kyi—the longtime opposition leader who spent most of the last two decades as a prisoner in her own home—is now an elected lawmaker with an official voice in government.
Today, the consensus is the reforms are irreversible. But that doesn’t mean “the future is necessarily bright,” said Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the late UN Secretary General U Thant.
The problem is “not with the political leadership at the top,” he said, “but with the enormity of challenges facing this country after decades of war, repression, and international isolation.”
Burma is a country where oxen still haul carts of wheat past simple houses made of bamboo and dried leaves, much like they did centuries ago. Its education and health systems are neglected, in tatters. And although the country exports electricity, its infrastructure is so poor and mismanagement so high that only about 25 percent of people living here has access to electricity.
The nation’s best and brightest are abroad: A 1988 crackdown on democracy protesters forced a generation of skilled labor to flee. Refugees—hundreds of thousands in Thailand alone—continue to live in camps, still too uncertain to return.
Although Thein Sein’s administration has been widely credited with beginning the monumental task of turning the ship of state around, it also has seen grave setbacks. Chief among them: the collapse of a 17-year-old truce with ethnic Kachin rebels in the north. That triggered a wave of fighting that has driven more than 75,000 people from their homes.
In western Burma, another 110,000 people have been displaced in a separate conflict between the Buddhist Arakanese and the stateless Muslim Rohingya. Many Rohingya were born in Burma, but they are denied citizenship because the government considers them foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh.
The conflict has degenerated into an anti-Muslim campaign also targeting the Kaman minority.
“Please tell Obama that we want to go home,” one woman pleaded this week in Sin Thet Maw, where she fled with 5,000 other ethnic Kaman Muslims after Buddhist mobs turned their neighborhood to ashes and forced them to flee on boats.
“We have no schools, no medicines, no toilets,” the 48-year-old, Ohnmar Saw, said. “We need help, and nobody is helping us.”
Although the crisis in the west goes back decades, it has been exacerbated—ironically—by the newfound right to freedom of expression the US has pushed so long for. Racist rants against the Rohingya have appeared online with increasing frequency and viciousness.
The government’s lifting of a longstanding ban on protests has paved the way for massive anti-Muslim protests staged by Buddhist monks, bolstering nationwide antipathy toward Muslims and setting the stage for the latest spasm of violence in late October.
The “democratic opening has allowed for repressed voices … both negative and positive, to emerge,” said Aung Naing Oo of the Vahu Development Institute think-tank, who traveled back to his homeland for the first time this year after fleeing two decades before.
But the upside is clear: “Myanmar is no longer a dictatorship,” he said.
Given the new democratic equation, solving the conflict in Arakan State will be difficult because the Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause that few politicians will defend—not Thein Sein, and not even Suu Kyi, whose party is looking toward elections due in 2015.
There is concern, too, that the US can do little to help.
America’s own interests—businesses are keen to tap into what is for them virgin territory rich in natural resources—are at risk of trumping human rights. And Obama’s trip is also part of a broader effort to bolster US influence in a region dominated by China.
Washington’s decision to suspend sanctions this year has also dramatically diminished its leverage here, said Aung Din of the Washington-based US Campaign for Burma, which has called on Obama to cancel his trip.
“The risk, without political and economic pressure, is that we will not see the process of democratic change moving forward,” he said.