In the aftermath of the much-criticized visit of President Barack Obama to Burma, Foreign Policy magazine awarded Burmese parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein as this year’s foremost “global thinker” in an apparent endorsement of a policy approach that praises modest reforms undertaken by the South East Asian nation but overlooks gross human rights abuses and ethnic violence committed by the military against ethnic minorities.
In its yearly special report entitled “100 Top Global Thinkers”, Foreign Policy touted Burma as “one of the most remarkable and unexpected political reversals of our time,” celebrating Suu Kyi and Thein Sein willingness to embrace short-term compromise and foster long-term reconciliation. But violence against Rohingya and continued gross atrocities committed by the Burmese military in Kachin State suggest this honor is untimely.
Perhaps those at Foreign Policy took their cue from the President. During an historic visit to Burma in November, President Obama deplored the violence in Rakhine state and urged Burmese to strive for national reconciliation. Yet, his remarks fell short of holding Burmese officials accountable for their responsibility to protect civilians, cease hostilities in ethnic areas, and allow humanitarian access to vulnerable populations.
“His remarks about local insurgencies were unclear and leave us troubled about our government’s commitment to advocate for those most victimized. We wonder: Will this administration follow up effectively to confront the pogrom against minorities and the exclusionary government policies that encourage division and hate in Burma?”
—Statement from half-a-dozen human rights groups including the American Society for Muslim Advancement, Burmese Rohingya Association of North America, Interfaith Center of New York and Free Rohingya Campaign
Congressional members from both sides of the aisle echoed concerns about the trip and conditions of the Rohingya in a letter addressed to President Obama ahead of his Asian tour. These policymakers noted the positives steps taken by the Burmese government towards democratization but warned that the U.S. must continue to aggressively identify and underscore ongoing atrocities that threaten peace and stability.
The letter urged a policy approach that United to End Genocide strongly supports—one that calls for withdrawal of troops in Kachin State, cessation of violence against Rohingya in Rakhine State, an end to the discrimination of Chin Christians, and calls for serious political dialogue within the framework of a robust peace process to resolve ongoing conflicts in Burma. Clearly those at Foreign Policy overlooked these serious concerns in doling out their honors.
It remains unclear how the Obama administration is going to address the attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma. The administration has yet to update Congress or the American public on the outcomes of Obama’s meetings with Burmese officials and what the administration plan to do about the dire security and humanitarian conditions.
Over the next few months, the risk of further conflict is posed to increase both inside and outside the ethnic minority areas as foreign businesses extend their reach in the aftermath of the Obama administration’s rolling back of sanctions. Just this week, Burmese police fired water cannons, tear gas and firebombs on protestors at an expanding mining operation.
By encouraging Thein Sein and Suu Kyi on the progress made so far without confronting them about atrocities committed under their watch those at Foreign Policy magazine and the Obama administration may find themselves on the wrong side of history.