Burma’s Broken Commitments: Thein Sein’s 11 Promises to Obama

Burmese President Thein Sein meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Yangon last year.

Burmese President Thein Sein meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Yangon.

Published in conjunction with Foreign Policy In Focus

In November 2014 President Obama will travel again to Burma. Yet, since that pledge, only one of those commitments has been fulfilled, three have been virtually ignored and efforts on the rest are mixed at best.

In November 2012, President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Burma. To commemorate the visit Burmese President Thein Sein made 11 commitments to deepen democracy and protect human rights. Six months later, as a further reward for this spirit of reform, President Obama welcomed Thein Sein to the White House, where he reiterated his dedication to those 11 commitments.

Here is what those 11 commitments are and where they stand today:

1. Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons PARTIALLY FULFILLED The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited 17 places of detention in the first half of 2014. However, the ICRC agreement with Burma restricts it from publicly reporting on prison conditions. Allegations of torture and ill treatment in prisons continue, many prisons remain unvisited, and many more people are believed to be detained on military bases with no access to international monitors.
2. Establish UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Burma NOT FULFILLED Despite President Thein Sein agreeing to the opening of a UN Human Rights office in November 2012, there has been no progress on its establishment.
3. Allow blacklisted people to enter and leave the country PARTIALLY FULFILLED Over 2,000 journalists, critics, and others deemed a threat to national security were removed from Burma’s travel blacklist in August 2012 and 1,000 doctors were removed in October 2013. With no official numbers it is unclear how many more remain on the list.
4. Initiate a process to assess the criminality of remaining political prisoners PARTIALLY FULFILLED Over 1,000 political prisoners have been released since 2011, but their release is often conditional. Despite a self-declared deadline by President Thein Sein to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of 2013, scores remain in custody. Despite this fact, President
Thein Sein plans to disband the committee reviewing political prisoners. New arrests continue under laws that allow arrests simply for expression of beliefs.
5. Establish a cease-fire in Kachin State; Create sustainable political solutions with ethnic minorities PARTIALLY FULFILLED Despite talks, a cease-fire has yet to be reached in Kachin State. Over 100,000 people remain displaced due to continued fighting. A nationwide ceasefire agreement has been drafted, but talks have been repeatedly delayed as the Burmese army launched new offensives in Kachin, Shan, Mon and Kayin states.
6. Decisive action in Rakhine State NOT FULFILLED The only decisive action the government has taken in Rakhine has been decidedly negative. Some 140,000 ethnic Rohingya continue to live in deplorable conditions in displacement camps. The top UN official for human rights in Burma reported recent concern about the proposed Rakhine State Action Plan would lead to “permanent segregation.”
7. International humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas NOT FULFILLED Humanitarian access remains restricted in all conflict areas. Doctors Without Borders, the main provider of health care to hundreds of thousands of people in Rakhine state, was expelled by the government in February 2014 and has yet to resume operations. International humanitarian organizations have been denied access to conflict-affected areas of Kachin State where 100,000 people remain displaced.
8. Sign the Additional Protocol to the UN nuclear agency’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement FULFILLED In September 2013, Burma signed the Additional Protocol allowing further access to information and inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
9. Stop buying weapons from North Korea UNCERTAIN According to a 2013 U.S. Defense Department report, Burma is among a “core” group of countries purchasing weapons from North Korea. In 2013, the U.S. placed sanctions on a Burmese General and Lt. Col. for violating the UN Security Council embargo on weapons trade with North Korea. In August 2013, Defense Secretary Hagel said that severing Burma’s North Korea ties remains a priority.
10. More open and accountable government PARTIALLY FULFILLED The Burmese government joined the UN Convention against Corruption, enacted an anti-corruption law and is a candidate for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. However, reforms are still greatly lacking and Burma remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Press freedoms have backslid, highlighted by the recent death of a journalist in military custody
11. Combat human trafficking PARTIALLY FULFILLED The Burmese government has taken steps to address human trafficking, launching a U.S.-Burma Trafficking in Persons dialogue in 2013. However, Burma remains a Tier 2 country on the U.S. State Department’s Annual Trafficking in Persons report. The 2014 report noted, “the government failed to demonstrate overall increasing efforts to combat trafficking from the previous year” and avoided downgrade to Tier 3 through granting of a waiver.

The Way Forward

The mixed nature of fulfillment of Thein Sein’s 11 Commitments should give pause to President Obama as he returns to Burma in November. While dramatic reforms have been begun, other areas, particularly regarding human rights, are clearly backsliding. Indeed, as United to End Genocide has warned, the dynamics behind the anti-Muslim violence over the past two years constitute the building blocks of genocide.

President Obama should highlight the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and speak their name despite government pressure not to do so. He should also urge the Burmese government to reform its 1982 Citizenship Law which bases citizenship on ethnicity and should stand against impunity by adding names of human rights abusers to the list of those facing targeted sanctions. And President Obama should push President Thein Sein to live up to perhaps the easiest of his remaining 10 commitments by allowing the opening of a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as he promised two years ago.

Finally, given the lack of effort in fulfilling its promises and the danger of genocide in the country the U.S. should not relinquish its last bit of leverage by increasing military relations with Burma.

Rather than extending any further rewards, or even just pausing where things currently stand, President Obama should ensure that the commitments made to him two years ago are actually being fulfilled and should warn that continued backsliding on reforms will lead to backsliding on rewards as well.

Download a printable version of the chart of the 11 Commitments.