The U.S. government is hoping that President Barack Obama’s November 12-14 Myanmar trip will yield clear statements from that country’s government on the Rakhine crisis and other key issues, a senior administration official told The Diplomat this week.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as Obama prepares to visit Myanmar on a three-country Asia swing. The trip comes before 2015 elections in Myanmar, and as some are questioning the authenticity of reform there and whether Washington is being tough enough on the Naypyitaw government.
Key issues for many Myanmar observers include continuing sectarian violence in Rakhine state, constitutional reform, conduct of the elections – including whether opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to run – and the potential for a ceasefire with ethnic groups battling the government.
The main purpose of Obama’s trip, the official said, is for Obama to attend the East Asia Summit in Naypyitaw, where he will also attend the U.S.-ASEAN summit. However, while there he will also meet with Myanmar President Thein Sein, and will meet with Suu Kyi in Yangon November 14.
The administration, the official said, sees the trip as an opportunity to “check in on the reform process, which I think we can all agree has slowed as things have gotten more difficult and we get closer to the 2015 elections.”
The official said the administration hopes “to come out of this trip with sort of a clear statement of where the Burmese government stands” on a number of important issues.
The administration would hope for “clear commitments to take actions on the Rakhine state, for example.”
It would also like to see “a clear statement by the government that their intention is to reform the constitution, to move closer to democracy, that it is their intention to finalize a genuine sort of national ceasefire in the short term and that their intention is to ensure that the preparations and the conduct of the 2015 election are done in a free and fair manner.”
The official said that the theme for much of the trip would be that while the administration recognizes that Myanmar has “taken some initial steps that were very positive, really put it on a different trajectory … there are still a lot of really hard challenges to be overcome, a lot of really hard choices that still need to get made” and how the United States can help make sure the country “stays on the path toward democratization.”
She said Obama’s tone would be a mixture of pressuring and laudatory.
“There are some areas where they’ve continued to make progress,” she said, “specifically on some of the labor reforms, things of that nature, but then on the other areas, they have some very difficult things that they need to do and that they have not yet stepped up to.”
On Rakhine, for example, she said Naypyitaw has not addressed “the sort of root causes of the instability and the tension, namely the status of the Rohingya and other Muslim minorities.”
The government also has not moved seriously to resettle displaced people or to foster reconciliation, she said, while there are still more than 100,000 in internal refugee camps.
In addition, she said, constitutional reform is “still very much an active process” and the administration wants “to be as encouraging as we can to make real democratic reforms to the constitution.”
Issues on the table include removing language that gives the military a veto over constitutional amendments and language barring Suu Kyi from running for president next year, and how ethnic groups will fit into Myanmar’s government.
The administration has told the government in Naypyitaw that if it wants next year’s elections to be judged as a credible step toward true democracy, there are things it must do, “and that means devolving power away from the military and to a civilian elected government,” the official said.
It also means that the election “not only has to be free and fair on the day of elections, but the process has to be fair, the playing field has to be level, you have to make sure that the regulations allow all parties to have access to the media to campaign freely, that kind of thing, that’s the kind of messages they’re hearing,” she said.
“If you want, on the day after the election, for the international community to say … this 2015 election has really moved the ball forward and Burma is on the track to a genuine democratic transition, you can’t get there without addressing these issues,” she said.
She also said she thinks it is “understood” that a further improvement in relations with the United States depends on these sorts of actions. An additional lifting of sanctions, for example, “I think, will absolutely be tied to additional reform measures, and we’ve always made that clear.”
There may be other assistance, but “big grand gestures” such as lifting sanctions without further reforms is not likely, she said.
Asked whether Obama is likely to push for a statement from Myanmar authorities that Suu Kyi will be allowed to run, the official said she expects Obama’s focus not to be on “telling them specifically what they should do with their constitution.”
Rather, she said, the focus will be on “talking in sort of broad principles, that we want to see constitutional reform that moves power away from the military towards civilian control, that ensures that all of the people of Burma, including the ethnic nationalities, can participate fully in the country’s political processes.”
She said the administration would likely judge the value of reform steps in part on the basis of those sorts of principles “and part of it will be taking our cues from the people of Burma and whether or not they consider the 2015 election and the constitutional reforms to have taken them forward.”
Obama’s meeting with Suu Kyi, she said, is an opportunity for him to get Suu Kyi’s perspective on reforms and to share with her his strategy and thinking about next steps after he’s met with Thein Sein.
It will also, she said, give Obama a chance to hear how negotiations are going in Parliament and what her priorities are beyond big political questions.
“She’s also working very hard on a lot of the rule of law issues that we’re supporting with our assistance and it’s an opportunity for us to get a sense from her, sort of what are the things that we could doing that would be most impactful,” the official said.
The trip is not likely to yield major announcements, she said.
Two years after Obama’s first trip to the country, she said, “we’re checking in as reforms are getting a lot harder and slowing down because of that and wanting to make sure that we’re re-emphasizing that there are some key areas that really need to be addressed if this is going to be a successful transition.”
Steve Hirsch is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who has reported extensively on Western policies toward Myanmar.