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Obama Aide Wraps Burma Visit Airing Election Hopes, Conceding Flaws

Ben Rhodes, a top aide to US President Barack Obama, makes a pre-poll visit to Burma to relay the views of the White House.

RANGOON — Just three weeks shy of Burma’s landmark general election, monitors are swarming in and foreign governments are flying in their top suits for final appraisal. The Nov. 8 vote, which just last week the government proposed delaying, is viewed as a crucial test of the reform process undertaken when the country’s former military regime ceded power to quasi-civilian rule in 2011.

This week US President Barack Obama deployed one of his top aides, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, to relay the views of the White House and assess the political climate. Rhodes, who is one of Obama’s speechwriters and a key foreign policy advisor, reiterated the United States’ well-worn call for an inclusive, credible and transparent poll, while touching on a number of “concerns” that could impact US policy if the election doesn’t go smoothly.

Chief among those, as the State Department has frequently voiced, is what Washington views as an infusion of religion in politics. Rhodes told reporters at the end of his visit on Tuesday that “there’s a sense of potential insecurity that could lead to violence or instability.”

Beyond the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in western Burma, particularly stateless Rohingya Muslims who bore the brunt of communal violence that broke out in 2012, the Obama confidant said he was informed of “activities” and “language” that had become “more extreme in terms of incitement against religious minorities.”

Rhodes did not explicitly mention the rise of Burma’s Buddhist nationalist movement, which in its current form goes by the name of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha. The group has been instrumental in drumming up support for policies viewed as discriminatory toward both women and religious minorities, and has been accused by the main opposition party—the National League for Democracy (NLD), chaired by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—of disrupting the campaign period.

Those accusations, which have been denied by Ma Ba Tha and all but ignored by the country’s Union Election Commission (UEC), precisely call out the group’s supporters for distributing materials that defame the party, and attempting to sway voters toward the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the plainclothes version of the Burma Army comprising its former strongmen. Even amid the USDP’s colossal advantages, the establishment is threatened by a possible NLD landslide, as happened in a 1990 election that was ignored by the junta. Amid fears of a rerun a quarter century later, the United States and other international stakeholders have insisted that the results of the November poll be honored.

“The result of the election needs to be respected. They [the government] have said that they will respect the result of the election, so they are on the record, that’s the commitment they have made,” Rhodes said on Tuesday in Rangoon, though he was less straightforward about how the United States was prepared to respond if that doesn’t happen.

The United States maintains a curious tightrope act with the former pariah; after nearly two decades of economic sanctions and diplomatic divorce, bilateral relations were restored in 2012 and the Western power has tiptoed into the emerging economy. Balanced with an agenda of human rights training and limited military cooperation described as a means to “professionalize” the armed forces, the United States’ engagement with Burma has been touted by the administration as a success of peaceful foreign policy.

Obama was quickly called out last year when he told an audience at a major US military academy that in Burma the United States may have “gained a new partner without having fired a shot,” as critics pointed out that the Burma Army, with which the United States is now partnered, has continued to attack ethnic minorities in several parts of the country. Conflict has since become worse, heightening in February of this year in the northeastern Kokang region. A long-sought nationwide ceasefire agreement, known as the NCA, was signed on Thursday, but is not truly viewed as nationwide because a number of the country’s most powerful and influential armed groups did not accede to the accord.

Rhodes tactfully stated, as did the State Department last week, that the United States welcomes the agreement and hopes for further inclusivity. He also emphasized that the Burma Army must show “restraint” in those areas that are not yet party to the agreement which, in less than a week since the NCA was signed, has not been the case. Again, it is unclear what the United States plans to do if things deteriorate further, but it is clear that next month’s election is the chief barometer that will determine continued friendship between the two countries.

Our hope is that this election is truly inclusive and that if there are problems, they are problems of capacity, not will.”

Success on that front, however, is far more open to interpretation and likely to be accepted by Washington come what may. Viewed as a “step” in the process toward democratization, the election is expected to be flawed. Barring an outright refusal to accept the outcome or other extreme circumstances, the international community looks inclined to accept the poll’s defects as growing pains.

Those defects are already evident, as illustrated by the UEC’s sluggish action on disputes that could greatly affect the outcome, likely to the detriment of the NLD and certainly to minorities such as Muslims, whose participation has been severely curtailed. Rhodes said that “transparency” would be key to resolving disputes, urging the UEC and local authorities to clearly explain the rationale behind their decisions. He also stressed the importance of international observers in assessing whether the poll is conducted and disputes are adjudicated fairly.

“In any country, you are able to compile a body of reporting from different sources and evaluate whether there is an appearance that decisions disadvantage one political or ethnic faction over another, so that will be apparent,” Rhodes said. “Our hope is that this election is truly inclusive and that if there are problems, they are problems of capacity, not will.”

The trouble with relying on monitors is that election observers are just that: observers, as the European Union’s chief election watchdog fully acknowledged at a separate press conference in Rangoon on Tuesday.

“[We do not] interfere in the electoral process in any way, shape or form,” said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the EU mission’s chief observer. Outlining the functions and limits of his charge, the first ever EU Election Observation Mission deployed to Burma, Lambsdorff said that while their work could contribute to strengthening future elections, it cannot strengthen this one—which is one of the most important political events in the country in decades.

“We observe these elections,” Lambsdorff said. “We do not interfere even when we see something that we believe does not correspond to international standards.”