Despite ongoing grave abuses against ethnic groups, this week President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Burma. While important reforms have begun in Burma, a presidential visit was a reward too far and sends the wrong message.
U.S. policy of lifting economic pressure and restoration of full diplomatic relations with the government of Burma following some economic and political reforms has failed to bring any relief to those lacking humanitarian aid in Kachin state or to prevent further violence and abuses against other ethnic groups, particularly recently against the Rohingya.
Some 75,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and Shan states with limited access to urgently needed international aid. At least 180 Rohingya have been killed and over 100,000 displaced as the government has tacitly or overtly supported abuses and the devolution of communal violence into systemic, largely one-sided, targeting of the Rohingya.
Rather than acting to quell violence and protect civilians, Burmese officials have promulgated hatred and even encouraged a policy that amounts to ethnic cleansing at the highest level. President Thein Sein asked the United Nations to arrange for 800,000 Rohingya to be placed in refugee camps or removed entirely from Burma.
A change of course is needed, first to avert the most immediate threat of further systematic violence against Rohingya and, second, to reintroduce the threat of consequences in the dialogue with Burmese authorities. The first can be done through pressuring the Burmese government to do more to grant humanitarian access to displaced populations, revise citizenship laws and to protect Rohingya as well as through the deployment of UN mandated observers in order to investigate the violence, deter escalation, and ultimately hold perpetrators accountable.
The second can be done by reiterating the fact that sanctions have not been removed, but rather suspended and can be put back in place if egregious human rights abuses continue.
President Obama raised the Rohingya issue publicly in the main speech of his visit saying there is “no excuse for violence against innocent people”, but it is unclear if he went any further in private conversations with President Thein Sein. The threat of a return to sanctions or other consequences was also absent, with only generic references that the “flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished”. Ahead of his trip Obama provided yet another reward by lifting the import ban on Burma, though he at least maintained the ban on gems, the material most closely linked with abuses in ethnic areas.
If Obama was really standing with the people of Burma, he would not have gone on this trip. But since he did, there was no excuse for him to not visit ethnic groups suffering under the policies of the Burmese government and advocating for the deployment of United Nations mandated observers in Rakhine state where Rohingya have been overwhelmingly targeted in recent weeks.
As decade long abuses continue and new ethnically motivated violence threatens to spread, the United States should recognize that the incentives offered to this point, and especially a Presidential visit, bring a special responsibility to use U.S. leverage to avert further catastrophe.
In the aftermath of previous mass atrocities and ethnic cleansings, the world pledged, “never again.” Instead of rewarding “flickers of progress” by dining with those enabling the killing and displacement of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Burma, Obama should have been standing on the side of the oppressed, calling for an end to the violence and threatening to pull back U.S. support for the Burmese government if the ongoing abuses are not immediately addressed.