— National security adviser Susan Rice, speech at Georgetown University, Nov. 20, 2013
The Obama administration has often pointed to the recent political reforms in Burma, also known as Myanmar, as one of its foreign-policy success stories. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, completed her lengthy term of house arrest and was elected a member of parliament as a brutal military dictatorship gave way to a quasi-military, semi-authoritarian process dominated by former regime officials.
President Obama rewarded the government of President Thein Sein with a high-profile presidential visit to Burma in 2012, during which Thein Sein made 11 commitments to deepen democracy and protect human rights. Thein Sein reaffirmed these pledges when he visited the White House in 2013.
Such political transformations are always difficult, and the Obama administration has had to balance its response. The United States was a leader in imposing sanctions on the junta, but in order to encourage more openness, many sanctions have been lifted, and business investment now is flowing into the country. Under a constitution written by the military, at least 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military; Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party is greatly limited in the number of seats it is permitted to contest. A provision in the constitution currently prevents her from running for president.
One key question is whether the rush to lift sanctions robbed the United States of leverage to prod the government to open even further and to curtail human rights abuses, such as brutal attacks on Muslims and continuing ethnic conflicts.
For the purposes of this fact check, we will examine how the administration has stood up against atrocities and shown “robust support for the people and civil society activists,” as asserted by Power and Rice, especially as the United States proposes to step up military cooperation with Burma. The risk is that the desire for a success-story narrative makes U.S. officials increasingly reluctant to speak out.
Power, when she was a White House official, in 2012 laid down some key markers — including the “critical urgency” of “bringing those responsible [for anti-Muslim violence] to justice” — in a blog post that appeared during Obama’s visit to Burma:
The challenge of ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence — including in Shan State, Kachin State, and Rakhine State — remains an area of deep and on-going concern. If left unaddressed, it will undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability, and lasting peace. Serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children. Humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons remains a serious challenge and on-going crisis. The government and the ethnic nationalities need to work together urgently to find a path to lasting peace that addresses minority rights, deals with differences through dialogue not violence, heals the wounds of the past, and carries reforms forward. The situation in Rakhine State and the recent violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims last week only underscores the critical urgency of ensuring the safety and security of all individuals in the area, investigating all reports of violence and bringing those responsible to justice, according citizenship and full rights to the Rohingya, and bringing about economic opportunity for all local populations.
During Rice’s speech, she applauded the fact that “1,000 political prisoners have been released.” But she neglected to mention that these were conditional releases, which means the government can throw activists back into prison on the flimsiest of charges.
For instance, when The Fact Checker asked for evidence of Powers standing up for human rights in Burma, an aide provided tweets from the ambassador, noting that one prisoner was released after a tweet that lauded “two years of real improvements on human rights.”
Unfortunately, this activist was arrested and jailed just weeks later, with new charges dating back to 2007. Power has not tweeted about the more recent arrest. There are reports of a sweeping New Year’s amnesty of political prisoners — though apparently these still would be conditional — but there remain more than 1,000 Rohingya prisoners.
A senior State Department official, assigned to answer The Fact Checker’s questions under the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said the United States remains concerned about the conditional releases and is “actively encouraging” the government to revise “bad laws,” such as those concerning the right of assembly, that are the basis for many of the rearrests. “We are not shy about calling the government out,” the official said.
Earlier in 2013, civil-society groups were concerned about a draft law that they believed would greatly restrict their activities. The State Department official said the United States brought together members of parliament and civil-society experts to revise the wording. “The current draft is quite a good law,” the official said.
Still, the draft has not been passed into law, and other laws have not been updated. Civil-society groups have become anxious and are preparing to protest what they call repressive laws.
The timelines for progress asserted by government officials also keep slipping. On July 15, in a speech in Britain, Thein Sein declared: “Over the coming weeks, we will have a nationwide cease-fire, and the guns will go silent everywhere in Myanmar for the very first time in over 60 years.” But the guns have not gone silent, and last week chief negotiator Aung Min said he is “hoping to present positive news of successful peace talks to regional leaders when they gather in Myanmar for their ASEAN meetings in 2014.”
Many of Thein Sein’s commitments to Obama remain only partially fulfilled or even ignored. The State Department official acknowledged no action has been taken on a promise to establish an office in Burma for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “We’re pressing them very hard to open a U.N. office,” the official said.
Still, there is evidence that human rights appear to take a back seat in the administration’s public talking points. During a presentation in the fall at the Asia Society on “responsible investment” in Burma, held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, State Department Burma coordinator Judith Cefkin made no reference to ethnic conflicts, attacks on Muslims or even Aung San Suu Kyi as she declared that a “true priority” for the United States was economic development.
“One of the very key areas of work and an area that is a true priority for the U.S. government in our policy is the economic development of Myanmar, but economic development which takes place in a way which broadly enhances the welfare of the people of Myanmar,” Cefkin told an audience that included Burma’s foreign minister.
In the interview, the senior State Department official noted that, unlike many other Western countries, the United States has maintained some sanctions and the so-called Specially Designated Nationals list for Burma maintained by the Treasury Department remains active. The administration recently expanded the list, but the additions were all related to alleged interactions with North Korea, not human rights. Indeed, the news release regarding one such designation took pains not to blame the Burmese government, emphasizing that “it does not target the Government of Burma, which has continued to take positive steps in severing its military ties with North Korea.”
Meanwhile, even as greater political space has opened up in Burma, a wave of anti-Muslim violence also has emerged. In particular, attacks by extremist Buddhists have targeted the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that faces state-sponsored discrimination, including a refusal to grant citizenship despite decades of living within Burma’s borders. U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell has traveled to the region four times.
“Led by our embassy in Rangoon, we pressed the government of Burma to take a strong principled public stand on the issue, and to crack down on all perpetrators of violence without prejudice in a timely fashion according to due process,” the State Department official said. “We urged stronger and more decisive measures to combat sectarian violence and religious extremism, and to address serious and ongoing human rights abuses, including in Rakhine State.”
The Obama administration co-sponsored a U.N. General Assembly resolution that expressed concern about the treatment of the Rohingya in Burma, but it has not supported calls from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, 12 Nobel Peace laureates and Physicians for Human Rights for an independent investigation into anti-Muslim violence. Some 140,000 people have fled to internal displacement camps to escape the violence.
“The best prevention against future violence is accountability, and our focus thus far has been on pressing the Burmese government to do more on this front,” the official said in explaining why the United States has not supported an independent inquiry. “The government has taken some steps to investigate and prosecute individuals for the violence, but there is much more the government can and should do. At this time, our assessment has been that supporting a call for such an international investigation would not advance this goal. We will continue to evaluate the situation and adjust our policy accordingly.”
The official said that the administration did prevail on the government to dismantle the notorious border guard force — known as the NaSaKa — which was accused of leading the attacks on the Rohingyas. The guard was replaced by local Rakhine police, which some reports suggest would mean little improvement in the treatment of the Muslim minority. “We continue to monitor what has replaced it,” the official said.
An official with Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying that the Treasury Department had considered sanctioning the NaSaKa, which is what prompted Thein Sein to abolish it.
Asked why individual leaders of the NaSaKa have not been targeted for sanctions, the State Department official said: “As a practical matter, listing of individuals who were part of NaSaKa would have been unlikely to have had a demonstrable impact beyond the action the Burmese government took on its own. As evidence becomes available, we continue to review both entities and individuals for new listings.”
The official said that the administration is “really urging the government to create a path to citizenship” for the Rohingyas. “The government says they have a plan for that,” the official asserted. “We don’t think it is just lip service — we have seen some signs of preparation in government — but they remain worried about the local reaction.”
Notably, Thein Sein defended controversial Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu after Time magazine labeled him “the face of Buddhist terror.”
The Obama administration’s push to expand military-to-military ties with Burma has also alarmed ethnic groups in the country, which make up 40 percent of the population.
“We are deeply concerned that your current approach to military-to-military relations will neither prove beneficial to our mutual goals of ending the Burmese military’s perpetration of human rights violations against us, nor bring us closer to national reconciliation,” 133 ethnic civil-society groups wrote in a letter to Obama and the prime ministers of Britain and Australia. “We urge you not to pursue military-to-military engagement without taking into consideration our concerns.” The letter said those concerns include setting “preconditions to military engagement” such as human rights training and ending the military’s lucrative economic enterprises.
The administration’s determination to expand military contacts, including training, has been viewed skeptically by some members of Congress. “I don’t believe the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing, raping, and stealing land from people in their country,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) at a recent congressional hearing.
Power was responsible for helping to create the Obama administration’s Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency task force. The administration’s most comprehensive description of what the board has done in its first year barely mentions Burma, though it asserts that “the U.S. Government is playing an important ongoing role in supporting efforts to address violence and protect vulnerable communities.” The only specific example is supporting a special rapporteur — whose mandate expires in March — to carry out investigations in Burma.
By contrast, reports indicate that the Atrocities Prevention Board played an active role in seeking to halt fighting in the Central African Republic.
The Pinocchio Test
U.S. policy in Burma certainly faces many countervailing pressures, from making sure the government does not adopt merely the window dressing of democracy to fostering responsible U.S. investment in the long-closed country. But the available evidence suggests that U.S. officials have rhetorically boxed themselves in so that they find it increasingly difficult to use tools they created, such as robust Treasury sanctions or the Atrocities Prevention Board, to punish perpetrators of ethnic and anti-Muslim violence.
The transition from dictatorship to democracy rarely happens on a straight line, and often there are setbacks. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party recently dropped suggestions that it would boycott the 2015 elections if the constitution was not changed to make her eligible to be president. The reasons for the shift are unclear, but certainly Western governments such as the United States have invested greatly in ensuring that competitive elections take place.
In any case, U.S. officials are getting ahead of themselves when they assert that the administration has been “standing up” against atrocities, given that attacks have continued almost unabated with little or no consequences for the killers. (In fact, virtually nothing has changed since Power wrote that blog post in late 2012; it could appear today with not a word altered.) Moreover, rather than applaud the release of political prisoners, U.S. officials should always highlight that they are conditionally released, subject to laws that need to be scrapped.
Burma could one day be a foreign-policy success story, but without constant vigilance by the United States, both in word and deed, it could tip into failure.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form