Two years ago, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, hopeful that U.S. assistance to a budding Asian democracy would be one of his signature foreign policy achievements.
On Wednesday, Obama will make a return visit, but it will not be a victory lap. Since 2012, democratic reforms have stalled in Myanmar, a former military dictatorship that many still call Burma. Human rights groups say the civilian government, still heavily influenced by the military, is engaged in a systematic effort to repress and dislocate the Rohingya people, Muslims long persecuted by the nation’s Buddhist majority.
Matthew F. Smith, executive director of a watchdog group called Fortify Rights, is one of several in the region who say Obama has oversold Myanmar’s democratic transition.
“The clean narrative of a military dictatorship going through a bloodless transition to a civilian democracy is just not accurate,” Smith said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “That is not what we are seeing on the ground. That is not the reality that Myanmar citizens are experiencing.”
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A nation of 50 million people, Myanmar is not a major trading partner with the United States, nor is it of high strategic value. But as a country closed off from the world and ruled by the military for decades, it holds a particular fascination for many in the West, including the president himself.
During his three days in Myanmar, Obama will participate in the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, where he will discuss maritime territorial disputes and international campaigns against the Islamic State and the Ebola outbreak. He will meet with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon.
When Obama held his first state visit to Myanmar in 2012, crowds lined the streets to cheer his arrival. He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held an emotional meeting with Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for much of the previous two decades.
“You give us hope,” Obama declared during one speech during that trip. “America at its best,” wrote Hillary Clinton in her memoir, “Hard Choices,” in describing U.S. efforts to help Myanmar’s transition.
Smith, who has been working on human rights issues in Myanmar for a decade, acknowledges some progress. “One positive change is the freedoms that civil society is experiencing,” he said. “Meetings are being held in the open. Human rights and environment groups can hold press conferences and meetings. This is extraordinary.”
But for many of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, particularly those in the remote north and southwest regions, conditions are harsh and often deadly. Although Buddhists are widely viewed in the West as peace-loving people, an ugly strain of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar has afflicted many of the country’s 1 million Rohingya Muslims.
Originally from India and Bangladesh, the Rohingya people came to Myanmar in the 19th century, but they never have been eligible for citizenship. Lacking government protection, they’ve seen their land confiscated, their villages burned and have been forced into refugee camps. An estimated 100,000 have fled the country, with another 100,000 thought to be in internment camps.
Smith says that Rohingya people have long suffered in Myanmar, but in recent months the situation has worsened.
A new government policy is forcing Rohingyas to either prove they have been living in Myanmar for 60 years or face detention and eventual deportation. Last week, Smith’s group and the Associated Press reported that government officials in Rakhine state were facilitating the overseas exodus of Rohingyas, and even profiting from it by charging for transportation.
“This is all happening in broad daylight,” said Smith. “The Rohingya are fleeing in droves and the authorities not only know about it, they are complicit in it and profiting from it.”
Meanwhile, in the north of the country, a longstanding civil war pits Myanmar’s army against various insurgents, including those from the Kachin and Karen ethnic groups. Last week, a report by Harvard researchers concluded there was sufficient evidence to prosecute high-level Myanmar military officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity for the country’s actions against Karen civilians.
Prior to Obama’s Asia trip, administration officials were circumspect in describing the situation in Myanmar, which will hold national elections next year.
One big question is whether the military elite will accept an election victory by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi is currently banned from running because her sons are British citizens.
“Our primary message will be that the United States recognizes the progress that Burma has made, but note that real challenges remain and missteps have been made in the course of this transition,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters Friday at the White House.
These kinds of transitions do not occur quickly or easily, Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday in Beijing. “This is going to take years to work through all the different issues that have to be addressed inside of Burma,” he said.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said no one should be surprised that ethnic conflicts continue to vex Myanmar’s transition. “The politics of this are tough, the judgments are tough, but we may have to understand the evolution of that regime is never smooth,” said Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center.
Other analysts fault the administration for not staying fully engaged with Myanmar. “I think they just put it on the scoreboard and they dropped it, and now they’re scrambling,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Human rights activists say Obama, having lifted sanctions against Myanmar several years ago, has leverage to improve the government’s treatment of ethnic minorities.
“Obama can tell Burma’s leaders that he won’t be able to lift remaining sanctions without progress on rights issues, nor improve military-to-military relationships,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, wrote in a recent commentary. “He can point out that U.S. companies will remain reluctant to invest in a country where widespread rights violations and war crimes continue to occur.”
Obama can’t do it alone, said Smith, adding that other Asian countries and international organizations need to step up. “The international community has not applied effective pressure,” he said. “Naypyidaw is getting away with it.”