What Obama should tell the president of Burma

The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims that started in western Burma last June has now taken 200 lives and caused some 100,000 refugees. This issue should take a prominent place in President Barack Obama’s agenda as he stops off in Burma this week. It will be the first time that any U.S. president has ...

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims that started in western Burma last June has now taken 200 lives and caused some 100,000 refugees. This issue should take a prominent place in President Barack Obama’s agenda as he stops off in Burma this week. It will be the first time that any U.S. president has visited the country.

In the run-up to the Obama trip, his Burmese counterpart Thein Sein has chosen to address the bloodsheed, which is still continuing between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) state. He made the remarks at a meeting with leaders from both communities on Friday. Though his speech dodges some of the key underlying problems, it does tell us something about how the Burmese president views the conflict and its international implications. Thein Sein attributed the violence to structural causes such as poverty, the lack of opportunities for jobs and education, and the geographical isolation of Arakan due to the lack of proper transport and communications. He also faulted young Buddhist nationalists and some radical Muslim Bengalis for aggravating tensions and preventing international aid from reaching the affected population.

"The country will lose face among the international community if we fail to pursue the norms of human rights and humanitarian work being practiced in many countries," Thein Sein warned. He called for concerted efforts by the government, Buddhist monks, and people of all races and religions to work for a harmonious society in which the rights of each group can be respected without conflict.

Thein Sein also sent a letter to the United Nations on the same day. He took the opportunity to condemn the "senseless violence" in Arakan. Thein Sein said his government was prepared to address contentious issues "ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to the granting of citizenship," according to a statement from the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that contained excerpts from the letter.

Now, the irony here is that is the sort of high-minded talk that one would usually expect from someone like Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. But we continue to wait in vain for anyone from the opposition to come up with a bold public stance on the conflict — something, say, comparable to President Obama’s great speech on race in 2008. Suu Kyi has chosen to focus instead on the problem of "illegal immigration" from Bangladesh. (It’s worth noting that many Buddhist nationalists dismiss the Muslim Rohingya as "Bengalis" who have no business being in Burma and thus do not deserve citizenship. It’s also worth recalling as well that, during her first foreign trip in late May, Suu Kyi demanded that the Thai government provide better rights and protections for about three million Burmese workers, almost all of whom are illegal immigrants, and even gave public speeches to "illegal Burmese workers" in Thailand.)

I know that Suu Kyi is very busy traveling around the world and giving beautiful speeches, but I have two suggestions for articles that she might want to read. The first is a Reuters report detailing how Buddhist Rakhine organized mass killings of Burmese Muslims. The second, from The Economist, describes the state of development in Bangladesh, showing that this country has made some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people’s lives ever seen anywhere over the past 20 years. So it doesn’t make much sense that Bangladeshi Muslims would choose to migrate from there to Burma, which has experienced nothing like that sort of growth in recent decades.

In short, much of the controversy over the violence and its origins can be resolved with the help of a few empirical observations. It’s easy to get the facts straight if sincerity and political will are present.

Thein Sein’s detractors might argue that he is making an overture to the U.S. president (who is due to arrive Burma on November 19) in order to improve his negotiating position. But if that’s true — so what? Trying to get a better deal for Burma is fine with me. And if he says the right things, all the better.

Of course, it’s quite clear that these recent remarks aren’t consistent with Thein Sein’s previous positions. In early July, he told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that the country will not allow the "illegal immigrant Rohingyas" to live in the country, and that the only solution to the problem is to hand the Rohingyas over to the UNHCR, which must put them in refugee camps, providing food and shelter. Otherwise, Thein Sein declared, Burma’s government will be compelled to deport them to a third country. Meanwhile, Burmese immigration officers conducting a census in Arakan have been trying to force Rohingyas there to register themselves as "Bengalis." (Many Rohingyas refused to comply, according to a report of BBC Burmese Service.) Now this same Thein Sein is telling Ban Ki-moon that he’s willing to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas (although, of course, the details of his proposal are still unknown).

All this adds up to a great opportunity for President Obama. He should seize the moment to drive home the point that the international community cares greatly about minority rights, and that this is an issue that is closely linked to support for Burma’s democratic transition, economic development, and social welfare.

As the political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan once noted, "In a democratic transition, two potentially explosive questions are unavoidable: Who is a citizen of the state? And how are the rules of citizenship defined?" One of the major causes of the Rohingya crisis is the unwillingness of the Burmese state to address these two questions in an internationally acceptable manner.

Obama must make it clear to Burmese leaders that the international community won’t tolerate "ethnic cleansing" of any sort, and that the citizenship issue needs to be properly addressed. He should encourage Thein Sein to follow up on his recent comments with credible actions. For example, Obama should ask Thein Sein to expand an "Investigative Commission" that the government formed in August to probe the communal violence and give recommendations to the government. In order to make this commission’s findings and recommendations internationally credible, the government should invite independent experts from the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This is one way for Obama to ensure that Thein Sein’s proposals find the proper institutional form. 

A couple of photo ops with Rohingya leaders won’t be enough. Well-meaning words about minority rights, while welcome, won’t do the trick on their own, either. Let’s see whether the U.S. president can do what’s needed to persuade Thein Sein to live up to his own rhetoric.

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