Obama Urged to be Voice of Minorities during Visit

By Lalit K Jha 18 November 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — US President Barack Obama is facing a growing chorus of calls to raise the issue of abuses against ethnic minorities in Burma when he makes his historic visit to the country on Monday.

As the visit—the first ever by a sitting US president—fast approaches, US lawmakers, groups representing some of Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities, and human rights groups have urged Obama to use the occasion to highlight ongoing violence in ethnic areas.

In an open letter to Obama, the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus, a bipartisan group of more than 20 lawmakers, urged the president to push the Burmese government to end the violence and ensure that minority groups have fair opportunities for participation in the political process.

“Burma still has a very long road ahead and the US must continue to advocate for the full inclusion of ethnic and religious groups within Burmese society and within the political process,” the lawmakers said.

“With the additional credibility and validation that a presidential visit gives to the Burmese government, specific reform agenda items should be on the table, including the cessation of violence against the Kachin, Rohingya, and Chin people,” they added.

They also cautioned that the US must be careful to take no action that could be interpreted as an endorsement of any misconduct or human rights lapses by the Burmese government, particularly at a time when it is still dominated by a military with a very brutal past.

In another letter to Obama, an umbrella group of 34 Kachin organizations calling itself the Kachin Alliance also expressed concern that Obama’s visit might lend legitimacy to a government with one of the world’s worst human rights records.

“Premature engagement with a government [that continues] to fund an army that is currently terrorizing innocent civilians and internally displaced persons could undermine the United States’ stature and integrity. These potential outcomes could further marginalize minorities in Burma and destabilize the country,” said the Kachin Alliance.

The letter also urges Obama to use his influence as a world leader to speak out against injustice in Burma and to press Burmese President Thein Sein to assure a free flow of domestic and international aid to displaced Kachin civilians and begin a genuine political dialogue.

Meanwhile, the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand (BRAT) called on Obama to cancel his trip. “On behalf of the entire Rohingya and Muslim population of Arakan State of Burma, we strongly demand President Obama to cancel the scheduled Burma visit as a show of support and solidarity to suffering humanity, the Rohingya people and Muslims of Arakan,” the group said in a letter.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a UK-based religious freedom advocacy group, said in a statement that Obama should also put pressure on the Thein Sein administration to release all remaining political prisoners and intervene decisively to end the violence in Arakan and Kachin states and allow unhindered access for international aid and humanitarian assistance to the affected areas.

“The situation is fragile, and we urge President Obama to use his visit to promote peace and human rights for all the people of Burma,” said Mervyn Thomas, the group’s chief executive.

Meanwhile by Friday, more than 61,000 people had joined an online petition calling on Obama to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Burma and demand an action plan from the Burmese government to end communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the strife-torn region near the border with Bangladesh.

On Friday, in response to a question about a protest by human rights advocacy group Amnesty International in front of the White House the day before, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reiterated that human rights would be an integral part of any US dialogue with Burma.

“As you know, human rights promotion has been a key part of our conversation with Burma throughout this year of diplomacy that we’ve been conducting. We have been encouraged by the release of some political prisoners,” she said.

“We’ve been calling for the release of all of them. Even one political prisoner is one too many. I’m sure that those points will be made again in the context of the President’s visit,” she added.

Now that the US now has a formalized human rights dialogue with the government of Burma, it will now be in a position to address “the whole panoply of human rights issues, from labor rights to minority rights to improving the environment for all citizens of Burma,” said Nuland.