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Are You Listening, President Obama?

By Burma Partnership  •  November 18, 2014

Photo By The IrrawaddyUS President Barack Obama’s made his much-anticipated second trip to Burma last week during the 25th ASEAN Summit, amid growing awareness that the reforms which he so eagerly celebrated during his 2012 trip are quickly unravelling – or being exposed for the stage-managed charade that they are.

In 2012, it was all too easy to trust the reform process.  National elections had been scheduled for 2015, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been freed from house arrest and elected to Parliament, political prisoners had been released, a nationwide ceasefire process was underway with the majority of armed ethnic groups, and restrictions on media and civil society had been drastically loosened.  And so the US and the international community embraced the reforms.

Yet, last month, in her recent address to the UN General Assembly, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee warned of the risks of backtracking.  Then, earlier this month, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi labelled the process as “stalled” and remarked that “there have been times when the [US] government has seemed over-optimistic about the reform process.

Furthermore, there has been a flurry of recent calls from civil society across Burma, directly raising their various concerns about the reform process with President Obama.  The Karen Human Rights Group wrote an open letter drawing President Obama’s attention to human rights violations resulting from the ongoing government military presence throughout south-eastern Burma; a Joint Strategy Team of civil society organizations (CSOs) issued a statement highlighting the grave humanitarian situation in Kachin and northern Shan States; Shan CSOs requested that President Obama ask the Burma Government why it is launching a large-scale offensive in central Shan State during the peace process; and 28 Kachin CSOs sent an open letter to President Obama urging him to take positive action regarding the conflict and resulting humanitarian crisis in Kachin State.

An open letter – in the name of “Young People from Burma” – paints the current situation most starkly, saying that “current reform in [Burma] is fake.  Changes that have happened are cosmetic to please the international community to attract investments to get the old regime out of economic isolation.  We do not believe this reform process is going to take us anywhere because the motivation for reform is insincere.  We want genuine democracy and national reconciliation.”  Furthermore, some students and youth held posters saying things like “Illusion!” and “Change?” when they met President Obama at Rangoon University.

However, it seems that President Obama is not hearing the full story – perhaps not a surprise given the lack of engagement with civil society, with just one token meeting organized by the US Embassy during his short visit.  At a joint press conference with President Thein Sein, he declared: “in part because of President Thein Sein’s leadership, the democratization process in Burma is real.” Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, responded: “What [President] Obama said is wrong.  Burma today is not even in transition yet.  It was a totalitarian state.  Today, it is a constitutional totalitarian state.”  Meanwhile, prominent activists and ethnic leaders criticized President Obama for neglecting the complexities of national reconciliation and peace in Burma.

However, there was one victory for international human rights campaigners, as President Obama answered the call of the “President Obama Say Rohingya” campaign. At a press conference on Friday 14 November, he said: “Discrimination against the Rohingya does not express the kind of country that Burma wants to be.”  The US Government also urged the Burma Government to renounce their current apartheid policies and to draft a new plan to allow the Rohingya to become full citizens.

Engagement with the Burma authorities is a reasonable strategy, but only if it is conditional upon real reforms.  A sustainable peace agreement must be reached with all armed ethnic groups which respects and guarantees their rights and autonomy; all ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya, must be protected from violence, discrimination and human rights abuses; land rights must be respected with economic development beneficial to all people, particularly local communities; there must be wholesale judicial and legislative reform, with repressive legislation repealed or amended in line with international standards; all restrictions on the media and civil society must be immediately lifted, and all political prisoners and human rights defenders freed; and finally, the undemocratic 2008 Constitution, which enshrines military power and impunity, must be amended, so that the 2015 elections can be genuinely free and fair.

Human rights and democracy, rather than international investment or geopolitical considerations, must be the priorities for President Obama’s engagement with Burma, and it is high time that he began listening to the voices of the Burma people, including those of civil society and his friend, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  The US has long been a friend of the Burma people, but a real friend listens and responds to the concerns of others.  And a real friend is not afraid to tell some home truths, to dole out harsh words and strong advice.

President Obama is currently dealing only in platitudes, misplaced optimism and delusion, hearing what he wants to hear.  He is only serving to endorse the current military regime, and has passed up the opportunity to use the US’s significant political and economic leverage to apply real pressure for real change.  It is to the cost of the people of Burma – and to their great disappointment after the optimism of President Obama’s last trip.  This second trip was his chance to make Burma a genuine US foreign policy success, and he should have grasped that chance.

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