Ethnic Groups Voice Optimism, Anger ahead of White House Visit

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 20 May 2013

RANGOON — Burma’s ethnic leaders have accused the United States of providing inadequate support for the Southeast Asian country’s peace process and are urging US President Barack Obama to stress the issue during his meeting with Burmese counterpart Thein Sein on Monday at the White House.

“We really want President Obama to push more on our country’s peace process because his request could make a difference,” Sai Nyunt Lwin, the secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), one of the biggest ethnic parties in Burma.

The secretary said the United States had been too soft in addressing the issue and added that despite ethnic groups’ past requests, Washington had done almost nothing to help bring peace to Burma’s ethnic regions. Sai Nyunt Lwin referred specifically to recent fighting between the Burmese Army and militias in Shan State, the homeland of Burma’s largest ethnic minority.

“We are not happy about it,” he said. “I doubt the ethnic peace process is in their interests,” the secretary added.

“It’d be good if the US president tells Thein Sein something more concrete this time,” Sai Nyunt Lwin continued.

Thein Sein arrived in Washington on Saturday at the invitation of Obama, the first trip by a Burma head of state in almost 47 years.

In recent years, the United States has resumed its ties with the once notoriously repressive regime. The warming relations were preceded by Naypyidaw’s release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of political prisoners, the scrapping of much censorship, and the legalization of trade unions and protests.

Last year, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Burma.

Win Tin, who helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Suu Kyi, said the visit was about the Burmese government’s effort to improve its image with the West as the success of its reform process has been questioned of late.

“I’m sure part of Thein Sein’s agenda on this trip is to urge the US to scrap the [remaining] sanctions,” the veteran journalist told The Irrawaddy. “But the problem is this: The government still has no idea what to do about mounting socioeconomic issues even when the sanctions are gone. The US should be mindful about it.”

Though the United States once enforced extensive political and economic sanctions against the previous military regime for its human rights abuses and undemocratic rule, the Obama administration has gradually lifted most sanctions following the reforms. The relaxation of sanctions has raised alarms for people like Win Tin, who is keeping a watchful eye out for any backsliding on reforms by the Burmese government.

“In my opinion, the US should still impose some sanctions to keep Burma on the right reform track,” he said.

“I welcome lifting some embargoes that directly affect people. On the other hand, without seeing any tangible political reform results, it doesn’t make sense to scrap all sanctions.”

There are some who are more optimistic about Thein Sein’s White House visit.

Pyone Cho, a leader of the 88 Students Generation group, said Thein Sein’s trip would provide a boost to the country’s reform effort and democratic transition, pointing out that the Thein Sein delegation is also made up of high-ranking officers from the Home Affairs, Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries.

“That shows the way of US engagement in this country is getting more sophisticated,” he said. “It could benefit our country economically as well as diplomatically. The most important thing is to grab that chance and make the most of it for the country.”

Dr Aye Maung, president of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said the trip would further cement the Burmese-US relationship, bringing more bilateral ties in sectors like investment, education and others.

“The US has even started using the word ‘Myanmar,’ which they didn’t recognize for many, many years,” he said. “So the visit could also lead to future engagements between departments in both countries. Even with the military, who knows!”

Addressing the possibility of a full lifting of sanctions, Sai Nyunt Lwin said he suspected both Burma and the United States were jockeying diplomatically. He cited as an example the release of political prisoners in Burma on the eve of Thein Sein’s visit to Washington.

“I think the US will keep imposing some sanctions on Burma until there are no political prisoners in jails. On the other hand, the government frees political prisoners sparingly to make sure to get what it wants. They both are using what they have as bargaining chips.”