Myanmar, US waste a chance

Myanmar, US waste a chance

President Thein Sein has visited President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington. The visit is being promoted by both Myanmar and the United States for its symbolism. This is a shame.

These two countries should approach their relations far more seriously than last night's largely ceremonial handshakes and platitudes. The two leaders wasted golden opportunities while dragging out cliches.

Last November, Mr Obama was the first president to visit Myanmar, ever. Now, Thein Sein has become the first Myanmar head of state to make an official visit to Washington since 1966 _ four years into the Myanmar tragedy of military dictatorship. President Thein Sein represents a new era in Myanmar, where democracy is the goal, sanctions are falling away. And so on.

The point is that this official state visit, pageantry and all, is about pleasantries. And the unpleasant fact is that Myanmar today, and its relations with the United States, are getting better at an uneven and often unacceptable pace. Sometimes, they are not getting better at all. Mr Obama and his guest can and will cite all the opportunities for big business in Myanmar. But there is surely more to that country than declaring citizens free to drink Coca Cola and work for KFC.

Before leaving for Washington, Thein Sein committed a hugely cynical task. He signed release papers for 23 political prisoners. That leaves hundreds of political prisoners still in Myanmar jails, and Mr Obama should _ although he will not _ make a big deal about urging Thein Sein to release them all, immediately.

Around the time Thein Sein became president in 2011, the US State Department named Myanmar "a Country of Particular Concern" over religious freedom.

Since then, many aspects of this problem have gone from bad to worse _ and then deteriorated. Buddhist extremists have encouraged murderous raids on Muslim villages and urban areas, killing many Muslims and burning thousands of shops and homes.

This is in addition to the shameful treatment of the Rohingya _ including by Thein Sein's government and by the president himself. Last week, as a cyclone approached western Myanmar and Bangladesh, the president specifically ordered relief work for these beleaguered people. But in general, the treatment of the Rohingya deserves a strong statement from Mr Obama.

For its part, the US is putting a huge effort into helping big business cronies move onto rapidly opening roads to business in Myanmar. Unfortunately, far less attention is paid to the real needs of Myanmar and its citizens. The US could be a major help in fighting the drug trade, such as helping to fund alternative crops and infrastructure that would help farmers get to market.

And since it is not planning to help fight the drug cartels in Myanmar, the US did not spend much time during the Obama-Thein Sein talks in straight talk on the problem its drug traffickers have created.

Myanmar's suspect statement that it cannot act against big processors of heroin and methamphetamines for another five years is unacceptable. But Mr Obama did not say so. It is understandable the US president stressed the positives, but not so acceptable that he mostly ignored the negatives from Myanmar. Thein Sein's visit is important, setting a new standard in relations between the two countries. But totally ignoring his country's human rights violations is a mistake.

Myanmar is a country emerging from 50 years of tyranny. Thein Sein's heart is often in the right place. But the US should not ignore the very real problems which concern Myanmar, its neighbours and its friends.

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