Human Rights

Obama’s Chance to Make Burma a Genuine Foreign Policy Success

By Khin Ohmar 11 November 2014

As President Obama prepares to make his second visit to Burma, it is worth looking back at the promises made to him by Burma’s President Thein Sein on his last visit in November 2012 and to assess the worth of these promises. Burma, after all, is largely seen as a foreign policy success by the current administration amid the mess of Ukraine, Libya and the threat of ISIS—yet it does not take much to realize that the normative narrative of optimism on Burma’s reforms is mistaken, and the country is in real danger of regressing into all too familiar territory.

Since the government of President Thein Sein took power in March 2011, life has become miserable for two substantial minority populations: the Kachin in the north and the Muslim Rohingya in the west of the country.

The decades-old civil war continues, currently at its most extreme with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Ta’ang National Liberation Army in the northern part of the country, with a promised nationwide ceasefire agreement yet to come to fruition as the Burma Army remains obdurate and reluctant to compromise.

In fact, just one month after Thein Sein pledged to establish a ceasefire with the KIO during Obama’s visit in November 2012, the Burma Army launched one of the biggest offensives in the country’s history, using helicopter gunships and airstrikes for the first time. It beggars belief that such a large and involved operation did not get a green light from the highest levels of power, including Thein Sein. Needless to say, fighting continued and ultimately left more than 100,000 civilians displaced.

It is not just civil war that is plaguing Burma. The Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State have been at the sharp end of sporadic bouts of religious violence, killing hundreds and leaving more than 140,000 in apartheid-like conditions in squalid camps for internally displaced persons. They are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, with severe discriminations and heavy restrictions on marriage, religious activity, health, education and opportunity. Even worse, they are not even allowed to self-identify as “Rohingya,” and are instead labeled as “Bengali”.

Not only have local security forces been complicit in violence, but state-level policies have facilitated hate and violence against this vulnerable population. It is estimated that another 100,000 Rohingya have fled Arakan State in rickety boats, of which thousands have drowned and thousands more ended up in slave labor plantations in Thailand, such is their desperation to leave.

During Obama’s last visit, in regards to concerns expressed over this violence, Thein Sein pledged to take “decisive action to prevent violent attacks against civilians,” and “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” This has not happened. Instead, the Rakhine (Arakan) Action Plan will force the Rohingya to accept ethnic classification as Bengali, while those who refuse to do so will be kept in segregated camps away from urban areas. The plan falls far short of Burma’s obligations to meet international human rights principles.

Burma Partnership coordinator Khin Ohmar. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)
Burma Partnership coordinator Khin Ohmar. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

The acts of spreading hate speech and inciting ethnic and religious conflict across the country have been undertaken with near-complete impunity under the full view of the Burmese government. Religious tension in Burma, particularly in Arakan State, remains high and is a time bomb gravely threatening the so-called democratic transition.

Other promises, such as committing to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013, have also turned out to be hollow, as more people are jailed for political activity while some 27 political prisoners remain from the previous regime’s rule, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Human rights defenders—including farmers, land rights activists, political activists, human rights workers, women’s rights activists, lawyers, journalists and peaceful protesters—continue to be subjected to judicial harassment, arrested and sentenced under bogus criminal charges as well as more controversial and flagrant political charges under repressive laws that do not comply with international human rights standards.

Oppressive laws, such as Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, Article 18 of the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law, and Article 17 of the Unlawful Association Law, are being used as tools to oppress and intimidate activists, human rights defenders, and local communities across the country. Furthermore, the recent killing of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing (aka Par Gyi) has shed light on the reckless, unreconstructed and criminal nature of the Burmese military.

In spite of a public pledge from Thein Sein, the government refuses to allow the UN to open an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, some people are still blacklisted from entering the country, and the commitment to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to conflict areas controlled by non-state actors is inadequate due to restrictions by Burmese authorities.

Burma is going through a pivotal stage in its history and while decades old challenges remain, emerging issues have served to complicate the reform process. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned in her report to the 69th UN General Assembly of “signs of possible backtracking”. At a press conference this week, Aung San Suu Kyi warned that the Burmese government’s reform process has stalled and that the United States may be taking an “overly optimistic” approach in its political and economic engagement with the government.

The question now is whether Obama will raise these issues and commit to take concrete actions before, during, and after his trip. Words are not enough. The Burmese government is sensitive to the West, and in particular the US, which still holds substantial leverage.

With every high profile visit or international event, a timely release of some political prisoners or signing of an international convention occurs in an attempt to appease critics. This adds credence to many analysts’ hypotheses that Burma’s transition is motivated by the desire to step away from China’s influence, and the US is all too happy to welcome Burma into its sphere of influence. If the US can set aside economic and geopolitical interests and set human rights at the forefront of its Burma policy, they could immediately improve the situation for the country’s people and help bring Burma’s reform process on the right track to democracy.

President Obama’s phone calls last week to Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, and the addition of former General and current USDP lawmaker Aung Thaung to the US sanctions list, are not enough. Wilful ignorance of the realities on the ground, or paying lip service to human rights through diplomatic showcases will not benefit the people of Burma.

This is President Obama’s chance to acknowledge that the situation in Burma has regressed since his last visitand to tell the people of Burma that the US will stand with them for human rights and democracy with concrete actions that reflect the challenges facing Burma’s reform process.

The United States has been a good friend to the people of Burma for years in their struggle for freedom and there is a high expectation that it will continue to support the people’s struggle for a genuine democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law in this country. Otherwise, Burma will not be the foreign policy legacy that the Obama administration hoped for.

Khin Ohmar is the Coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of regional and Burma civil society organizations supporting the collective efforts of all peoples working towards democracy, peace, justice and human rights in Burma.

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