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Myanmar’s President Makes Historic, Divisive Visit to White House

Obama meets with Myanmar's President Thein Sein during his November 2012 trip to Asia. Credit: White House Photo/Pete Souza

WASHINGTON, May 20 2013 (IPS) - Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on Monday became the first leader of that country in almost a half-century to pay a call on the White House, a visit that has simultaneously highlighted a series of monumental changes seen in Myanmar in recent years as well as a reforms process that many are warning may have stalled.

It was only late last year that the United States lifted longstanding travel restrictions on Thein Sein, amidst a broader easing of economic sanctions by Washington and others aimed at nurturing a nascent opening-up in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Yet that process has been marred over the past year by ongoing armed insurgencies, continued rights violations and inept government response to anti-Muslim violence.

"It just seems like the whole [reforms] process is on autopilot.” -- HRW's John Sifton

At the White House Monday, President Barack Obama urged his counterpart to end attacks against Muslim minorities known as the Rohingya. Although President Sein did not directly mention the Rohingya, he did say that the recent communal violence was “extremely tragic”.

“Peace must be rooted in the broadest possible participation of public support, and we must forge a new and all-inclusive national identity,” President Sein said in public remarks at a university here following his visit to the White House, after which he took no questions.

“Myanmar people of all ethnic backgrounds and all faiths – Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and others – must feel part of this new national identity. We must end all forms of discrimination and must ensure not only that intercommunal violence is brought to a halt, but that all perpetrators are brought to justice.”

President Sein also noted that a balance must be found between security imperatives and “basic rights and openness”, and he requested “help and advice” from the United States in finding that balance.

Yet critics are increasingly sceptical about Washington’s role in this relationship, warning that U.S. policy towards Myanmar has not been responsive enough to failed pledges of reform by Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government. The former general’s travels around Washington Monday were dogged by criticism from public protesters and U.S. lawmakers.

“We should establish firm benchmarks to give pro-reform forces within Myanmar … the appropriate leverage to foster democracy and lasting civilian rule,” Trent Franks and Rush Holt, both members of Congress, wrote Monday. They urged that such benchmarks focus on progress of rule of law and “constitutional reform to create a federal system with respect for minority rights and civilian control of the military”.

Carrots and benchmarks

“The problem is that both the president and government of Burma have already been rewarded for the reforms process that’s underway, even while the last six months have been among the least impressive in terms of reform since that process began,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director with Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

“The [Obama] administration is showing very little inclination to calibrate its approach and use punitive measures when there are negative developments. Instead, they continue to hand out rewards.”

One case in point is last Friday’s release of around 15 political prisoners. With the release – ordered by President Sein’s office, rather than a high-profile committee set up for the purpose – clearly aimed at coinciding with the Washington visit, rights observers are warning that political prisoners are being used as mere pawns.

In addition, President Sein’s government has failed to follow through on a pledge to facilitate the opening of an office by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Further, little headway is being seen in multiple simultaneous negotiations among long-simmering ethnic conflicts.

And a recent government commission tasked with looking into the anti-Rohingya violence was nearly universally disappointing, recommending a security response over social reconciliation for actions that rights groups say constitute ethnic cleansing.

Indeed, that violence is continuing. Also on Monday, Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group, released a report detailing the recent deaths of over 100 Muslims in central Burma, in a communal “massacre” in late March.

While the Obama administration has repeatedly voiced its “concern” over these and related issues, public policy announcements over the past year have been in the Myanmarese government’s favour: continued rollbacks on sanctions (though some do remain), boosting of trade links, a historic visit to Yangon by President Obama, followed by Monday’s visit to the White House by Thein Sein.

“This encouragement policy is not working – over the past year, and particularly in the past couple of months, the Burmese government has escalated its human rights violations and military attacks against ethnic minorities,” Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group, said in a statement.

“Instead of retracting previous concessions or freezing new concessions … the U.S. administration has responded disproportionately by granting more concessions. President Obama is sending the message that crimes against humanity by state forces against ethnic and religious minorities in Burma will be ignored by his administration.”

Calibrated approach

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly inferred that their actions are meant to strengthen the moderately reformist wing under Thein Sein, guarding against hardliners and entrenched interests.

“We can’t underestimate the fact that Burma has made great progress in the last couple of years,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday. “Yes, there’s still more work to do, but the progress they’ve made has been significant and they’ve put in place an ambitious reform agenda.”

The Obama administration’s own acknowledgement of the ongoing “work to do” was given a strong fillip elsewhere in Washington on Monday. Just as Thein Sein and Barack Obama were planning to meet at the White House, the U.S. State Department was releasing an annual global report on religious freedoms.

The Myanmar section is clear-eyed in its reporting of the past year, noting that despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedoms, the government “in practice” enforces restrictions on those rights. “The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year,” the report states, noting also government complicity in the anti-Rohingya attacks last June.

Still, HRW’s Sifton alludes to broad if grudging agreement with the outlines of U.S. attempts to offer rewards for reforms and to bolster Thein Sein’s hand.

“Few in civil society are suggesting that the U.S. government turn its back on Thein Sein,” he notes.

“Rather, the issue is imposing a calibrated approach so that when the reforms process slows or there are other disappointing developments, those are met with corresponding slowdowns or punitive actions on the U.S. side. Right now, it just seems like the whole process is on autopilot.”

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