Obama's message to Myanmar

Obama's message to Myanmar

When Barack Obama arrives in Myanmar tomorrow, he will be the first sitting US president ever to do so, and there are expectations that he will make a bold gesture to encourage the country's reform and democratisation processes. The United States has already suspended sanctions on Myanmar and removed an import ban in recognition of President Thein Sein's political and economic reforms.

While Mr Obama will be careful to keep the overall tone during his visit upbeat and encouraging, he will not be able to avoid certain issues if he wishes to maintain the credibility of the US as a staunch supporter of global human rights.

In this respect, Mr Obama is well positioned to be an instrument for positive change in the country.

Aung Zaw, writing on the Irrawaddy website earlier this month, noted: "It is safe to say that Chinese influence on the Burmese [Myanmar] public is almost non-existent and indeed contrasts strongly with the US. Washington's engagement in Burma [Myanmar] does not merely involve the government _ it has established strong contacts with opposition and civil society groups both inside and outside the country."

The inclusion of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as a result of the general elections was a monumental step forward, as have been moves toward lifting government censorship. In both the parliament and the area of media freedom there is still work to be done, and Mr Obama may well address these issues in meetings with President Thein Sein. In particular, the constitutionally mandated inclusion of military officers in parliament and a military "veto" go against the core principles of a democracy.

But on the political front things are generally proceeding as well as might be reasonably hoped in Myanmar after its long self-imposed isolation under a repressive military regime. The biggest obstacle to peace, prosperity and freedom in the new transitional Myanmar is longstanding ethnic divisions, and obviously these are not matters a visiting US president can resolve. But Mr Obama can and should strongly urge the Myanmar government to strengthen overtures toward ethnic groups. In Kachin state, where there has been open fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army that has resulted in mass displacement of civilians, Mr Obama should urge the government to accept the presence of international monitors and negotiators.

In recent months, the most worrying ethnic issue in Myanmar has been the violence in Rakhine state, mostly directed against minority Muslim Rohingya. The White House has already made it clear it would press this issue during Mr Obama's visit. An investigative report from Reuters, published in today's Spectrum, details the latest outbreak of violence at the end of last month. Several Muslim communities were attacked by armed mobs apparently egged on by powerful local political organisations, and they were met with very little resistance from government security forces. According to the Reuters report, when security forces did finally respond with deadly force against the mobs, the violence ended abruptly.

Herein lies the dilemma for the Myanmar government, which even assuming the best of intentions is in a very difficult position. For decades the country has been relegated to the status of a pariah state because the military used force against its own people. Now unless it is prepared to use force the fragile reform process may be swept aside in a wave of ethnic division. But that may not be necessary if it instead acts to make it implicitly clear that the rights of all citizens will be protected.

Unfortunately up until this point the government has denied that Rohingya are citizens, even though many families have been in the country for generations. Thein Sein famously suggested back in July after the first wave of violence in Rakhine that Rohingya should be regarded as refugees and settled in a third country that is "willing to take them".

Ahead of and almost certainly influenced by Mr Obama's visit, Thein Sein on Friday pledged to consider new rights for Rohingya, but stopped short of a commitment to citizenship.

Hopefully the US president will use his visit as an opportunity to try and influence Thein Sein to make such a commitment.

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