A historic and deeply contentious event for the U.S.-Burmese bilateral relationship occurs this week. For the first time since hosting Burmese dictator Ne Win nearly fifty years ago, Washington hosts Burma’s head of state on Monday. President Thein Sein’s visit commemorates Burma’s relatively speedy transition from a largely isolated, pariah state to a welcomed member of the international community—and controversial partner with the United States.
Amidst this week’s photo ops between President Obama and President Thein Sein and praise for Burma’s surprising reform, a looming question remains: are Burma’s recent reforms merely a cosmetic gesture to win favor with the West or is the country truly on the path to democracy? Targeted ethnic cleansing continues throughout Burma, but this fact has done remarkably little to tarnish the growing international prestige and reformist image of President Thein Sein and the Burmese. Indeed, the actions of the United States certainly give the impression that we are more concerned about investment, trade, and quickly rebalancing other Southeast Asian countries to China rather than democracy and human rights.
Burma’s recent reform is modest, and yet, this week the United States essentially rolled out the red carpet for this former high ranking junta member. Any celebration of reform is highly premature after a closer look at the dire situation on the ground.
The critical test of the new government’s long-term stability will be how the government engages with growing violent ethnic divisions that continually plague their country. Although ethnic groups comprise 40% of Burma’s population, they are largely the forgotten people of Burma. Burma’s minorities face a campaign of ethnic violence and what Human Rights Watch recently called “ethnic cleansing” towards Rohingya Muslims, but discussion about these critical issues is remarkably absent by the Obama Administration.
After the transfer of power to a quasi-civilian government in April 2011, Burma’s government took modest steps toward democratization by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, relaxing media censorship, and permitting Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy, to participate in the political process. The Obama Administration responded by lifting, relaxing or suspending almost all sanctions on Burma after the U.S. enforced increasingly strict sanctions on the ruling military junta for over twenty years.
Burma undoubtedly has made recent strides towards reform but, if it intends to be a democratic and stable country, the path ahead will come with many challenges. If its ethnic violence is not immediately addressed, the targeted ethnic conflicts will be the root cause of Burma’s reversion to a pariah state and could cause civil war, enforcement of a “state of emergency,” and military rule.
Communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakine state last June 2012 spread rampant anti-Muslim violence in central Burma. Attacks against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state were carried out with impunity and the Burmese government failed to end a campaign to forcibly displace thousands of Rohingya Muslims. Now, thousands of homes in Rakhine state are destroyed, hundreds of people slaughtered, and over 130,000 people displaced.
The plight of the Kachin ethnic and Christian minority is often overlooked by those who craft U.S. policy. Humanitarian conditions are seriously deteriorating in Kachin state and Kachin internal displacement camps. Over the last five years, the Burmese military expanded to over 150 battalions in Kachin state and largely isolates many Kachin internally displaced people from humanitarian aid. Since the Burmese military broke the ceasefire agreement in Kachin state in June 2011, at least 100,000 civilians have been displaced from their villages. The Burmese military’s ongoing war against the Kachin has resulted in undetermined civilian casualties, the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, and forced labor. The atrocities committed against the Kachin could amount to war crimes or “crimes against humanity” and should be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted as the evidence warrants.
President Thein Sein himself was a general in Burma’s brutal military and was appointed by the Burmese military junta to head the Burmese state well before recent reforms. Although there is much speculation about the impetus behind President Thein Sein’s willingness to engage with the international community and support modest reform, whether or not he continues reform—and negotiates lasting ceasefires in the ethnic areas—will be a telling indicator of his country’s direction. Moreover, the Burmese military will closely determine Burma’s future and whether they permit major reform in the ethnic states and progression of democratic development and peace talks.
As President Obama meets with President Thein Sein this week, the U.S. must condemn Burma’s continued human rights abuses and ethnic violence and make sure the people of Burma, particularly ethnic communities, hear the message. A cautious approach to the U.S.-Burmese bilateral relationship continues to be necessary as we determine the extent and endurance of Burma’s reforms.
After the aura surrounding President Thein Sein’s first meeting with President Obama at the White House begins to fade and Washington evaluates its policy towards Burma, the narrative of its campaign of ethnic cleansing should come to the forefront of our negotiations with the Burmese government. As U.S. policy rebalances towards Asia, we should establish firm benchmarks to give pro-reform forces within Burma, including ethnic and religious minority leaders, the needed leverage to foster democracy and lasting rule in Burma. These benchmarks should include progress of rule of law and constitutional reform, the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, efforts at justice and accountability, prevention of forced labor and child soldiers by the military, and withdrawal of the military from ethnic areas. Any contact with the Burmese military should be the last piece of our engagement with Burma and only occur once these benchmarks are met.
In the battle for regional power with China and effort to counterbalance other regional powers to China, the U.S. must not be shortsighted in its Southeast Asia policy. Real counterbalance and American influence will come with a truly peaceful, democratic Burma. The U.S. should not ignore the ethnic cleansing and human rights atrocities in Burma or blindly support President Thein Sein’s regime. The U.S. will forever be on the wrong side of history if we continue down this path.
Stephanie Hammond is the foreign affairs advisor for Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ). The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Congressman Trent Franks.