Two years ago, President Barack Obama made history as the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar — an outreach to the Southeast Asian country that the Obama administration touted as a foreign-policy success. But since then, Myanmar -- which is undergoing a difficult transition away from military rule and toward peaceful reform -- has not progressed. Now, Obama's second visit to the country this week is casting a harsh light on the country's difficult evolution, raising questions about whether it is reasonable to expect speedy reform.
Positive engagement and a supportive presence from the United States in Myanmar is crucial for the overall advancement of the Southeast Asian community, experts said. But too much, too soon can be harmful to a nation that was economically shut out from the world for decades. Holding Myanmar to unrealistic expectations could also set the nation up for failure during an already cumbersome transition period, said Lex Rieffel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute and an expert on Southeast Asia. “We’re talking Myanmar, not the United States,” he said. “It’s a completely different culture and context.”
Since Obama’s first visit to Myanmar, at least 100,000 persecuted Rohingya — a Muslim minority population of roughly 1 million people — have fled after clashes with the Buddhist majority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. In the last three weeks alone, 14,500 Rohingya people have fled the country by boat in hopes of reaching Thailand or Malaysia, according to the Arakan Project, a group that monitors Rohingya refugees.
The Myanmar government recently announced a plan to register the oppressed Rohingya people as official citizens, but only if they can prove their family has lived in Rakhine State for at least 60 years and will agree to be listed as another ethnicity. Otherwise, they will be relocated to detention camps and could be deported to another country, according to the New York Times and the Washington Post. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, an estimated 810,000 people in northern Rakhine State are without citizenship and nearly 140,000 are still displaced in this coastal region of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.
Last week, researchers from the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School released a legal memorandum titled “War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,” which claims sufficient evidence to issue an arrest warrant against three Myanmar military officers under international criminal law. The four-year investigation, involving more than 150 eyewitness interviews, found “a pattern of military abuse” in 2005 and 2006, during which the military “cleared” and forcibly moved civilian populations from conflict zones in eastern Myanmar. “[S]oldiers fired mortars at villages; open fire on fleeing villages; destroyed homes, crops, and food stores; laid landmines in civilian locations; forced civilians to work and porter; and captured and executed civilians,” the report stated. This had a “profound” effect on local communities and at least 42,000 people were displaced from their homes, according to the investigation.
The investigation concluded that current high-ranking Burmese officials were involved in international crimes and oversaw these military operations, said Tyler Giannini, a clinical professor of law and co-director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and its International Human Right’s Clinic. “The legacy of abuse needs to be more prominently part of the conversation,” Giannini said. “If they’re still in power, it’s really a signal that the reform effort is not as far as it should be at this point."
One-quarter of parliament seats are reserved for the Burmese military, according to Giannini. The fact that those same leaders, who are responsible for steering the country out of a military dictatorship and into semi-democracy, are now accused of war crimes is caveat that Myanmar is not where it should be in its transition, Giannini said.
Separately, the Burmese government is accused of resisting the commitment to make its political system more democratic. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is prohibited from running for president in the upcoming 2015 elections because the Burmese constitution currently bars people with spouses or children who have a foreign citizenship from holding office. Moreover, legislation was introduced in parliament that would ban Rohingya people from voting in next year’s elections. Parliament is also considering legislation that would forbid interreligious marriage, the Washington Post reported.
Still, experts said Obama’s return to Myanmar on Wednesday is not intended to reprimand or scrutinize the Burmese government. He’s simply making an appearance at the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit and otherwise will keep his visit relatively low-key, according to experts. “If the East Asia summit were being held anywhere else in Asia, he’d be going there and not to Myanmar,” said Rieffel.
In 2004, Myanmar announced a blueprint to transition into a more democratic nation. At the time of Obama’s first visit in 2012, the country had made a significant transformation out of a 50-year-long dictatorship into a semi-democracy. The reforms had prompted some Western nations to remove a number of sanctions against Burma -- a nation rich in natural resources. “The country is making progress and we ought to give them more space so they can find a good path that will work for them that will be different from everyone else’s,” Rieffel said. “There are many people who believe the way to govern is the American way. I don’t believe that.”
As Rohingya oppression builds and the Burmese government struggles to further democratize, Western leaders have recently expressed concern over whether economic sanctions that they had recently dropped were perhaps lifted too soon and should be re-imposed. But withdrawing from Myanmar and reinstalling sanctions would only make the transition harder for the Burmese, according to Linda Lim, a professor of strategy at University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Myanmar is going through fits and stops of political liberalization, as would any country,” said Lim, the former director of University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Instead, a supportive yet understated approach is best when dealing with Myanmar during this complicated transitional period, said Rieffel. “It’s extremely hard for people in the Western world to understand the depth and intensity of the racist attitude toward that minority that exists among the Buddhist majority,” Rieffel said. “People who get upset -- and rightfully so -- they go in with a sledgehammer. I sympathize with the sentiment, but it’s not necessarily the best way to improve the situations for the long-suffering Rohingya minority and others.”