The Obama administration until recently legitimately claimed at least one foreign policy success, the improved human rights situation in Burma. Now even that is getting crossed off the list. The Post reported:
Burma’s government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.
The situation is most dire in Burma’s western reaches, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims are living as virtual prisoners, with little access to health care and food. The fast-deteriorating conditions prompted Tomás Ojéa Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, to say in April that there is an “element of genocide” in the Rohingyas’ plight.
At the time, many conservatives questioned whether the United States was overdoing things, lifting sanctions too readily and frittering away leverage it would later need to insure Burma stayed on the road to reform. To a large degree that is what happened.
Hillary Clinton personally visited Burma and now President Obama plans to, even amidst the deteriorating human rights situation. The president has appeared clueless about the decline and praised his Burma policy in late May at West Point. What did he miss?
The human rights experts at Freedom House told me that ethno-religious violence exacting a terrible toll is the biggest reason for regression, along with that the lack of leadership from anyone in speaking out against the violence. In addition, there are signs from the military that they don’t want to relinquish control after all. In the lead-up to the 2015 elections, the ruling USDP party is stoking tensions by playing identity politics. Without a principled opposition voice at the highest level which respects and promotes religious pluralism, this country of 135 ethnic groups could experience inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence for years to come. They say that the main hopes for continued progress ride with independent activists who have capitalized on the expanded space for civil society to call for peace and pluralism.
But once again the administration’s short attention span seems to have impeded its ability to anticipate events, remain engaged in the process of building civil society and make clear that whoever leads the government must respect human rights or risk resumption of sanctions.
Despite the president’s boast in late May, by mid-June the State Department was already in a defense crouch, issuing mealy-mouthed statements when the government banned interfaith marriage (“We have expressed our concerns to the highest levels of the Burmese government”) and refused to amend the constitution to allow Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency (“We are aware of reports that the majority of members of the parliamentary committee considering proposed constitutional amendments has voted not to amend Article 59F of the Burmese constitution. The United States supports Burma’s economic and political reforms. We routinely engage the Burmese government in discussions around how to strengthen their democratic processes, including through constitutional reform.”)
With the one arguable success of his foreign policy slipping away, the president should reconsider traveling to Burma. His administration should begin to have tough conversations at lower levels with officials, making clear that if Burma continues heading in this direction it will find itself right back where it started – politically and economically isolated.