In US, Fears that Burma Unrest Threatens Reforms

Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Burma, speaks to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after their meeting at her home in Rangoon on March 14, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

WASHINGTON—Few imagined Burma would embrace democracy when the United States began its historic engagement with the military regime. The country’s rapid changes were lauded by visiting Western leaders, and the nation’s president was hailed as a hero. But spasms of spreading, communal violence show the reform path is bumpier than expected and have taken the sheen off a foreign policy success of the Obama administration’s first term.

While Washington says the country’s overall direction is still positive, some experts worry Burma risks backsliding toward military rule that ended two years ago.

In the past two weeks, violence between Buddhists and Muslims has left dozens dead. Thousands of refugees of an earlier spate of sectarian bloodletting are fleeing on rickety boats. And in a key concern to US policymakers, the country’s murky military ties with North Korea continue.

Washington has been at the forefront of international efforts to encourage Burma to open up to the world and ease controls on its 60 million people. Thursday marked the anniversary of the historic US announcement that it was normalizing diplomatic relations—the first in a series of diplomatic rewards in response to reforms. That culminated in the suspension of economic sanctions and in November, the first visit to Burma by a US president.

The benefits of reforms have been clear. President Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly and brokered ceasefires with most of the nation’s ethnic insurgencies. After years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament, which is performing its role with vigor.

But the rapid pace of change has also been accompanied by chaos, as ugly sectarian tensions have surfaced.

Human rights groups and a UN envoy have criticized the Burma government’s failure to prevent attacks mostly on minority Muslims by majority Buddhists. Sectarian violence in western Arakan State last year killed hundreds and drove more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims from their homes, intensifying long-running persecution of the stateless minority group. In an ominous development, Muslim-Buddhist violence spread in March to central Burma, killing dozens more.

The government’s emergency response has been slow and some fear the unrest could spiral.

“If the new government and opposition can’t fashion an effective response to this violence that brings justice and accountability, then it seems likely the violence will escalate,” said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.

“The risk here is that the military may step in and set back the reform process. That risk is very real.”

A senior State Department official said the US is gravely concerned about the violence and wants the government to make a broader effort to stem tensions before they flare up. But he credits President Thein Sein for eventually issuing a message of tolerance and respect for religious differences—unprecedented for the past 50 years when sectarian tensions were dealt with through use of force.

Although there’s no national-level organization of unrest, individuals and groups appear to be inciting the violence, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. He did not identify who they might be.

Priscilla Clapp, a former US charge d’affaires in the former capital city of Rangoon, visited Burma last month. She said the presence of outside provocateurs could be part of a campaign to strengthen the military’s hand and keep it involved in maintaining order in the country.

The communal unrest has spawned a refugee crisis that is spilling beyond Burma’s borders. Since the outbreak of violence in Arakan State near Bangladesh last year, an estimated 13,000 Rohingyas have fled by sea, seeking refuge in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries. Hundreds have drowned, and in some cases authorities have pushed back refugees from their shores or refused them humanitarian access.

Despite the drumbeat of bad news, the Obama administration remains upbeat about Burma, contending that the pace of change has exceeded expectations and that overall progress toward democracy is positive.

Critics, however, question whether, in the rush to reward progress, the United States has lost its leverage should Burma backtrack.

Walter Lohman, director of the Asia program at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said the administration was right to normalize diplomatic relations but moved too quickly to suspend investment and trade sanctions.

There are unresolved ethnic conflicts, a constitution skewed in favor of the military and political prisoners still in detention. National elections in 2015 are widely viewed as key to consolidating reforms.

“We won’t really know whether the US going so far and so fast on sanctions was the right thing to do for at least a year or so yet,” said Lohman, who recommended the United States set benchmarks Burma should meet for sanctions to be lifted entirely. “The military could still call this whole thing off if they want to.”

Questions linger about whether elements within the military are acting independently of Thein Sein. Despite his order to stop fighting, Burma’s army pressed an offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels that has displaced an estimated 70,000 people in the north.

“The army clearly wants to remain a strong force and there are probably divisions between the uniformed army and the ex-generals who run the government,” Clapp said.

The senior US official said Burma has yet to sever its military relationship with North Korea, which Thein Sein has committed to do, and the United States is continuing to raise the issue with the government.

Since the start of the policy of engagement with Burma—which reversed two decades of pressure and diplomatic isolation—a key US goal has been to end North Korean weapon sales to Burma, which, if they are continuing, violate UN Security Council resolutions and could help pay for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Yet the Obama administration appears to have decided that engaging the Burma military will be more productive than keeping it at arm’s length. Burma was invited to observe US military exercises in Thailand in February.

Aung Din, a US-based activist and former political prisoner, views that as a seal of approval for an army still fighting its own citizens and committing atrocities. He said it would be better to get military chiefs in Indonesia and the Philippines—Southeast Asian nations that have shifted from authoritarian rule to democracy—to engage their Burma counterparts before the United States does.

He advocates more US engagement with Burma’s diverse ethnic minority groups, who have been fighting the military for decades and whose longstanding grievances need to be addressed for the country to achieve peace.

But Clapp, the former charge d’affaires, cautions there’s only so much Washington can do to solve Burma’s internal problems, including the Buddhist-Muslim unrest, beyond counseling what might be the best course of action.

“We can’t get involved and stop it on the ground,” she said. “It’s their issue, it’s their test.”

15 Responses to In US, Fears that Burma Unrest Threatens Reforms

  1. Some of us Burmese after being away from our land and struggling people are still trapped in a mind set that dreams and desire absolute freedom and total peace in Myanmar. Clapp after objectively observing the multi facets -dimensions, political, cultural and economic forces and emerging power relations and the complexities and risks inherent in the present conjecture of Myanmar peoples history, has a better grasp of the real world politics when she said “We can’t get involved and stop it on the ground, It’s their issue, it’s their test.”. . The Myanmar people will decide their own political destiny, and we as Burmese- Myanmars should to the best of our capabilities be part of the process of building a democratic polity and sovereign state, in a interdependent globalised 21st century world,. Thank you Professor Clapp, we as Burmese will take the democratic test, and will never give up, for the question is still ” what is to be done”. We will do it. For Democracy is us Our commitment and actions, the incessant struggle in Myanmar for and with the common people is for equality, civil rights and social justice . . To me after visiting Myanmar recently after a lapse of two decades plus (since 1991) have come to a veiw point that Ko Aung Din and his associates have not been able to propose and then act on the “problems” the population in Myanmar are presently been confronted with, but only trumpet the same old mantras ..

    • Just because you visited Burma recently and Aung Din didn’t visit doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what needs to be done in Burma.

      • Well Amanda, the proof is in the act. Definitely Ko Aung Din knows a lot, but he and his ilk including you and the doom and gloom people who are always blaming and shaming the Burmese are irrelevant in Myanmar. The people have risen,and spoken with one voice and no intervention by those who feel and think that they are morally superior and have the real answers to Myanmar’s problems are deluded.

  2. If you passively accepts evil you are as much involved in it as those who help to perpetrate it. If you accept evil without protesting against then you are really cooperating with it.

    • That’s right Terry. When I think about Miektila, I wonder what my fate would have been if I were living in that Muslims community in Meiktila.

  3. The government failed to protect minorities who got preyed in the hands of majority. In the future, law enforcement needs to be able to do its job effectively. We had seen enough the inability of the Thein Sein Administration. Every citizen has the right to enjoy life in a democratic nation which ethnics and minority Muslim do not see it yet.

    • Instead, Muslim are being victimized even more while the local police failed to protect the Muslims and the government sent troops only after the Muslims lost everything in Meiktila.

  4. The Kohima
    2nd Division
    War Grave
    1944 March


    Visit .
    Tauh-Chan War Memorial

    Pray and Pray!

  5. The victims(minority Muslims) of Meikthila, recently when tried to return to their homes, they were turned away by local authorities by saying we cannot guarantee your safety. They were told to go and live at refugee centre. Mr. Thein Sein, where is the rule of law in Burma.
    Act now or yr anti reformist rebels will not let you down.

  6. Do back the wrong team again girl.

  7. US is only worried that massive number of Rohinga low life ending up on their shores. If they are so worried them them all and resettle them. UN has been in Maungdaw and Buthidaung since the early 90s except creating a cushy jobs for lucky few and linning their pockets they did sweet bugger all. As for the reforms Myanmar needs to go at its own pace not at the expectation of others.

    • Don’t worry, the US also has enough Chinese immigrants, just like Burma, except that the really rich “princelings” like Guagua Bo and Mingze Xi go to the US and Burma gets the poorer Chinese from Yunnan!

  8. Those Rohingyas should be resettled in their own places which Ne Win allotted to them. That is Mayyu District.

  9. So far democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi and a Buddhist, never spoke against the killing of muslims in Burma.

    • Daw Su as a revered Myanmar women . leader and states women speaks not for specific persons and groups. She and leaders of the people and the Nations of this world speaks for humanity , for equality and social justice under the rule of law.

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