Another Way Forward for Myanmar

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As has been well reported, Myanmar’s democratic opening has coincided with serious and alarming violence against religious minorities. These depredations often fall along ethnic lines, creating a difficult witches’ brew of issues that would challenge any government, but are ones Naypyidaw must now confront. The recent report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I work, recently put forward a roadmap that could address these abuses and move Myanmar forward.

Myanmar’s leadership needs to understand that the assault on Rohingya Muslims must stop. In April, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power expressed deep concern for the ongoing violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, delivered a similar message. Both made clear that continuing attacks on minority Muslims and foreign aid groups may jeopardize the warming relationship with the United States. The  U.S. Congress is watching as well.

And Rohingya and other Muslims are not the only religious minority suffering human rights violations in Myanmar. Other ethnic minorities who are predominately Christian have also experienced abuses at the hands of the military, such as in Kachin State.

Myanmar, until recently, was subject to an array of U.S. sanctions because of its human rights abuses. Some sanctions have been lifted, while others have remained in place.

Yet one human rights related regime has been consistently overlooked – Myanmar’s designation by the State Department since 1999 as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The State Department made the consequence of designation another justification to maintain the arms embargo. Today, issues of religion and its free practice are interwoven into the challenges facing Myanmar’s religious and ethnic minorities. The United States should work to leverage the CPC designation as a carrot to bring about improvements. There are ways for Myanmar to be delisted, but based upon concrete progress and reform.

USCIRF’s recently released 2014 Annual Report chapter on Myanmar (translated here) found that “state-sponsored discrimination and state-condoned violence against Rohingya and Kaman ethnic Muslim minorities continued, and ethnic minority Christians faced serious abuses during recent military incursions in Kachin state.”  We also identified how legal reforms – such as full citizenship for Rohingya Muslims and greater freedoms to peacefully practice their faith – are needed to address the longstanding issues these minorities face. The deeply flawed census process excluding Rohingya and a discriminatory marriage law are steps in the wrong direction.

Military operations in Kachin and northern Shan states impact the large Christian minority populations there. During a recent visit to Washington, the deputy commander of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) asked the United States to become more involved in the peace process and help ensure greater respect for human rights for ethnic minorities. In response, the U.S. embassy in Yangon expressed support for increased dialogue to address the conflict, adding “we will consider seriously any request that comes from both the union government and the ethnic nationality representatives to support the ongoing dialogue.”

So how can the United States help Myanmar move forward to protect religious minorities and their rights? It can use the CPC designation as leverage to negotiate a roadmap for agreed improvements.

Specifically, USCIRF’s report recommended that the U.S. government enter into a binding agreement with the government of Myanmar, as permitted under the International Religious Freedom Act, setting forth commitments the government would undertake to address policies leading to violations of religious freedom. These commitments should include:

  • releasing unconditionally all persons detained for the peaceful exercise of religious freedom and related human rights;
  • taking concrete steps to end violence against religious minorities, either by state or non-state actors, by investigating and prosecuting individuals who committed or incited violence;
  • ending policies of discrimination against non-Buddhist religious minorities; and
  • lifting all restrictions inconsistent with international standards on freedom of religion or belief.

These are difficult issues to address, but this approach worked in another country in the region. In Vietnam, a CPC designation and subsequent agreement was used to good effect, leading to tangible religious freedom improvements without hindering other aspects of the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship.

After designating Vietnam as a CPC in 2004, the State Department negotiated a binding agreement with Hanoi, setting out certain benchmarks for delisting. To further demonstrate the importance of religious freedom to U.S.-Vietnamese relations, it also implicitly tied Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization to fulfilling the agreement. WTO accession within the CPC framework, along with diligent work by the State Department and NGOs on the ground, led the Vietnamese government to undertake several reforms:  it released a number of prisoners; expanded legal protections for nationally-recognized religious groups; ended the policy of forced renunciations of faith; and increased legally recognized religious communities in urban areas freedom to worship. As a result of the government’s progress in implementing the binding agreement, the State Department lifted the CPC designation for Vietnam in 2006.

Vietnam’s CPC designation and the ensuing diplomacy did not set back relations; to the contrary, they deepened and grew. Bilateral trade, humanitarian programs, and security cooperation all expanded. The same model could work for Myanmar. Its desire to enter into a Generalized System of Preference (GSP) agreement with the United States could provide needed leverage to address these issues, similar to WTO accession with Vietnam.

In the meantime, however, other measures should be maintained until there are concrete improvements. For example, the “specially designated nationals” (SDN) list by the Treasury Department should continue, and the designation under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), should be renewed for another year, citing specifically anti-Muslim violence.

After being closed to the world for decades, Myanmar has new opportunities, but also new obstacles. Given the connection between religious identity and the serious human rights abuses occurring there today, the CPC designation for severe religious freedom violations represents a useful, while perhaps forgotten, tool to move the country forward. It is one that the U.S. government should engage for positive change.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed here are his own. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22

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