WASHINGTON — The United States is hoping to nudge Burma’s quasi-civilian government on stalled reforms during a high-level human rights dialogue, yet expectations are limited as the former pariah nation enters a crucial election year.
International scrutiny of Burma’s rights record is intensifying as it gears up for its first nationwide vote since a repressive junta ceded power in 2011. Optimism that greeted its initial opening and release of hundreds of political prisoners has faded, and skepticism is growing over its transition to democracy. The military is resisting constitutional reform and Buddhist nationalism is growing.
Top State Department human rights envoy Tom Malinowski’s trip, beginning Sunday, will coincide with a 10-day visit by U.N. special rapporteur on Burma, Yanghee Lee. She arrived this week and on Friday examined the grim conditions faced by 140,000 minority Rohingya Muslims who have been dumped in dirty camps since they were displaced in sectarian violence that began three years ago.
The government’s failure to prevent Buddhist-Muslim clashes, and continued discrimination against the stateless Rohingya—an estimated 100,000 fled the country also known as Burma in the past two years—are at the top of a long list of enduring human rights concerns.
During two days of talks in Naypyidaw, the capital, starting Wednesday, U.S. officials will also discuss with Burma officials reforms needed to its outdated legal system, the growing problem of land grabs, and recent detentions of peaceful demonstrators and journalists.
The Obama administration views its diplomatic opening to Burma, which began in 2012, as a major foreign policy achievement, and says problems on the path to democracy were to be expected. On a visit last November, President Barack Obama acknowledged backsliding in reforms but underscored Washington’s continued support.
U.S. lawmakers and rights activists, however, have become increasingly critical both of President Thein Sein’s government and the U.S. approach.
“Until the U.S. government stops wagging their finger at the Burmese government’s human rights record with one hand while using the other hand to give them economic handouts, the Burmese government can and will continue to ignore complaints about their human rights record,” said Jennifer Quigley, president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Changes to a junta-era Constitution before elections in late 2015 appear increasingly slim, meaning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi—Malinowski is scheduled to meet with her—will be unable to contest for the presidency. The Constitution also guarantees the military 25 percent of parliamentary seats.
On Sunday, Malinowski will visit the northern Kachin state, where clashes between government forces and ethnic rebels have rumbled on for the past three years, harming the prospects for wider peace with insurgent groups. He’ll visit camps holding some of estimated 120,000 uprooted by the fighting.
Malinowski will meet with civil society activists in the main city of Yangon before the talks in Naypyidaw, which will be the second such human rights dialogue since the normalization of diplomatic relations.
Lt-Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, will join the dialogue, meeting senior representatives of the Burma military to discuss military conduct and reform.