Too Fast, Too Soon

Why Obama's embrace of Myanmar is putting the cart before the horse.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Myanmar President Thein Sein had a historic meeting with President Barack Obama — the first time a head of state from the country has visited the White House in nearly 50 years. Obama praised Thein Sein’s leadership "in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform," before discussing joint projects that U.S. assistance will focus on in Myanmar, such as improving agriculture. A pleased Thein Sein replied, "I will take this opportunity to reiterate that Myanmar and I will continue to … move forward so that we will have — we can build a new democratic state — a new Myanmar."

Talk about a reversal of fortune. Only three years earlier, not only would this meeting have been impossible, but nearly every top leader in Myanmar had been barred from entering the United States and most other leading democracies. Sanctions hobbled the country’s economy. Members of the U.S. Congress regularly castigated Myanmar as one of the most tyrannical societies on Earth. Former President George W. Bush in 2007 even canceled a planned summit with the regional body the Association of Southeast Asian Nations simply to avoid having to interact with Myanmar.

In the days before Thein Sein’s visit, nearly every U.S. official who spoke publicly about the country painted it as a potential model of emerging democratization — a bright spot in a world where democracy has regressed for the past seven years, according to the global monitoring group Freedom House. Since the United States began easing sanctions in 2012, American companies have started to flow into Myanmar — perhaps the largest untapped emerging market the world. In April, Ford announced that it will open a car dealership in Myanmar, the first major automaker to do so, while General Electric, Caterpillar, and many other multinationals are looking to expand their businesses there. The U.S. view on Myanmar has indeed switched 180 degrees — yet it remains dangerously black and white.

While the country has taken important steps toward democratization, its opening has also unleashed dangerous forces that have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, which make up about 4 percent of the country’s 60 million people. As Reuters reported in mid-May, "In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Myanmar is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred." The attacks are destabilizing the country and creating the possibility of nationwide violence, upsetting Myanmar’s fragile transition and creating instability in the middle of the most important region in the world for the United States. (Militants in Indonesia, angry at the attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, reportedly tried to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta.)

The attacks, which in 2012 killed at least 192 people but seemed confined to the western state of Rakhine, have since spread — and the Myanmar press reports burnings, beatings, and evictions of Muslims throughout the country. In an April report, Human Rights Watch labeled the violence "ethnic cleansing" and "crimes against humanity," noting that state security forces participated in the attacks alongside mobs — together burning mosques, driving Muslims from their homes, and preventing people from assisting the injured and dying.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leading moral authority, has said little about the attacks against Muslims. In a statement to Global Post in May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman claimed that his boss has little interest in supporting the Rohingya’s claims for rights and citizenship — a shocking response by the Nobel laureate, renowned around the world as a champion of freedom and rights. "She believes, in Burma, there is no Rohingya ethnic group," the spokesman said — in other words, that they do not deserve the protections Myanmar’s constitution grants to other ethnic groups.

Despite the supposedly liberal leanings of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, I have found that most activists and leaders express disdain for Myanmar’s Muslims. Even famed activist Ko Ko Gyi, almost as well known in Myanmar as Suu Kyi for his long fight against the former military regime, blamed "the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called Rohingya and the mischievous provocations of some international communities," in a widely-publicized announcement in July 2012. Neither the government nor Aung San Suu Kyi has offered a viable plan for how to create a more federal state, essential in a country with so many ethnic minority and religious groups, and so little trust in the central government.

Meanwhile, not a single prominent opposition leader, activist, or government official has even yet admitted that ethnic cleansing is taking place. To his credit, Thein Sein deplored the violence in a May speech, saying that the government will "take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims." Over the past five months he has declared states of emergency, due to inter-religious violence in several parts of the country, and has deployed the army in an attempt to stop the bloodshed. Even if the military is not complicit in the attacks, it brutalized the people of Myanmar for five decades, and has little knowledge of how to peacefully quell protests. Besides these ineffective military moves, Thein Sein has taken few concrete steps to improve the situation. 

Emboldened by the lack of action taken against marauders and killers, Buddhist extremists have recently launched a national anti-Muslim campaign. Called the 969 Movement, after an auspicious number in Buddhist numerology, the campaign calls on citizens to avoid Muslim shops and properties, and tacitly encourages attacks on Muslims. 969 followers encourage Buddhist shop-owners to put 969 stickers on their stores, identifying them as Buddhist-run, and have reportedly punished shops that do business with Muslims. The Internet has become a rallying ground for the movement. Web access in Myanmar is so new, and the media repressed for so long, that hate speech and wild conspiratorial rumors now dominate online articles and postings.

Meanwhile, gross attacks on human rights go unpunished. In the town of Okkan in central Myanmar, gangs of Buddhists armed with swords and machetes attacked Muslims across their community in April, burning down houses and hacking people to death. The violence follo
wed a minor altercation between a Muslim woman and a young Buddhist monk, in which the woman appeared to have accidentally knocked over and broken his alms bowl. The leading Myanmar magazine The Irrawaddy reported that the gangs "appeared to be a well-organized mob, complete with scouts and checkpoints" — scenes eerily reminiscent of the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, or the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Many Muslims in the cities of Yangon and Bago, and in other large towns throughout the country, are now afraid to go to the mosque, enter shops catering to Muslims, or show displays of their faith outside their homes or stores.

And yet most of the rest of the world seems to have ignored Myanmar’s looming catastrophe, seemingly convinced that all is well — or will be soon. On the same day in April that Human Rights Watch released its report, the European Union lifted its remaining sanctions on Myanmar — a move subsequently criticized as premature. The United States has maintained restrictions on a few top Myanmar leaders, but has also removed sanctions. 

After his Monday meeting with Thein Sein, Obama said he expressed "deep concern" about the violence. This is admirable, but Obama and other world leaders should do more — calling for more severe punishment for the instigators of the attacks would be a start, while the international community should promise to slow the torrent of aid and investment until ethnic tensions have calmed. Then, the government, the opposition, and prominent ethnic and religious leaders, with the prodding of the international community, need to quickly develop a plan for devolution and federal government. Aung San Suu Kyi, for her part, needs to be less reticent in speaking out on the rights of all people in Myanmar, and on the need to halt ethnic and religious attacks.

Moreover, the Myanmar government, with the help of donors, needs to focus incoming aid money on areas crucial to restoring peace. These include: creating a civilian-controlled police force, which can protect law and order and reduce the need for army intervention in conflict areas; training young journalists to understand the need for sourcing stories; and launching mediation efforts to increase people-to-people dialogue among ethnic groups and religions.

At the same time, regional governments and Western donors must more effectively plan for Muslim refugees fleeing the violence. The United Nations Refugee Agency, and wealthier nations, could fund temporary camps for the refugees who are fleeing in Thailand, and help some resettle into third countries like Malaysia. Perhaps then, on Thein Sein’s next visit, Obama can praise change in Myanmar without having to paper over the country’s major problems.

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