Shadow Government

It’s Not Too Late for the Obama Administration to Reboot Reform in Burma

With parliamentary elections in Burma slated for this fall amidst a deteriorating security situation and ongoing violence against ethnic minorities, the Obama administration has the opportunity to refocus its strategy. There are worrying signs that its once-heralded strategic opening to Burma is unraveling and that the administration was over eager to embrace the regime. A ...

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With parliamentary elections in Burma slated for this fall amidst a deteriorating security situation and ongoing violence against ethnic minorities, the Obama administration has the opportunity to refocus its strategy. There are worrying signs that its once-heralded strategic opening to Burma is unraveling and that the administration was over eager to embrace the regime. A March report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur notes concerns about backtracking by the government and ongoing discrimination and ethnic conflict. Now, the administration needs to reprioritize democracy and human rights. Although the Burmese regime took some promising steps beginning in 2011, as long-time political prisoner and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned, reforms have “stalled” and the United States has been overoptimistic about the reform process.

America’s overzealous embrace of the regime is an opportunity lost for the administration to use a range of diplomatic tools, such as high-level visits, as leverage for broader political reforms. Moreover, some of the earlier promising signs have reversed as the regime has jailed a number of prisoners of conscience, including ones such as Phyo Phyo Aung who it had earlier released, and Burma has not followed up on its promise to President Obama to facilitate the opening of a U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Burma.

Although Burmese leaders have made some key overtures, such as releasing Suu Kyi from house arrest, freeing thousands of prisoners of conscience, and removing thousands of names from government blacklists, more lasting and meaningful systemic reforms are needed to prove that the junta’s “disciplined democracy” is more than mere window dressing. Despite earlier progress, worrisome signs include the bar on Suu Kyi from running for president, the military’s refusal to relax its control over one-fourth of the seats in Parliament, ongoing human rights abuses by the Burmese military in ethnic areas, persecution of the Rohingya minority, and the arrest of student demonstrators and journalists this past spring. The spate of arrests has substantially increased the number of prisoners of conscience and raises troubling questions about the government’s commitment to reform.

Given these grim signs, Suu Kyi’s words of caution appear prescient and the United States appears to have been too quick to reward the Burmese regime with diplomatic overtures, such as high-levels visits by Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama and the easing of economic sanctions that paved the way for U.S. companies to do business in Burma. As a Burmese civil society leader recently complained to me, “The U.S. has already embraced the regime but human rights abuses go on. President Obama visited. Hillary visited. U.S. companies are investing. Madeline Albright came to celebrate the opening of the Coca Cola plant. What more is there to hold over the regime as leverage for further reform? The U.S. has already given the generals everything they want.” Although the Obama administration may have failed to reserve some of these overtures as carrots to encourage the regime to make further changes, there are several ways the Obama administration could encourage meaningful reform.

Call on the Burmese government to engage in electoral reform.

As the November 2015 parliamentary elections approach, observers have cited concern with serious flaws in the electoral rolls, including a number of deceased persons on the lists. The Obama administration should combine its funding for electoral reform projects with a clear message to the Burmese leadership that they have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to democratic reform by cooperating in earnest with electoral assistance project implementers. Aside from being transparent and open with experts seeking to ensure free and fair elections, Burmese leaders should also be encouraged to rectify these deficiencies in the voter rolls and allow oversight by international and domestic election observers. These steps would go a long way toward easing concerns about potential electoral fraud. This is especially needed given that the November 2010 elections were marred by concerns from opposition groups and western countries regarding fraud.

Coordinate with the EU.

To strengthen this message and provide a united position the United States should coordinate its policies and message with allies, particularly the EU. This will underscore to the Burmese leadership the normative value and international importance of democratic reform and human rights protection. Moreover, enhanced coordination would hopefully shift EU and U.S. commercial policy in Burma from one of competition for economic opportunities to effective and principled use of western economic resources as an incentive to urge greater freedom in Burma. These steps will likely pay greater dividends in the long run as the Burmese people will remember that the United States placed greater emphasis on championing their cause above economic gain.

Condition Military Cooperation.

For years, human rights organizations have reported that the Burmese military engages in egregious human rights atrocities including destroying villages, using villagers as forced labor, and rape. The Obama administration should link further military-to-military cooperation with specific progress on human rights steps. These steps should also be made public so that other human rights organizations can monitor compliance. Because the military has long engaged in human rights abuses targeting ethnic minority groups, including sexual violence, forced labor, and use of child soldiers, the Obama administration should identify specific steps related to protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, including for example: cooperating with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues to identify specific steps that need to be taken to protect Burma’s ethnic groups, particularly the Rohingya minority, which has faced severe persecution and allowing greater access to international humanitarian groups seeking to aid these vulnerable populations. In addition other important steps that international actors, such as the U.N. Special Rapporteur, have called for include reversing the troubling increase in arrests of prisoners of conscience; removing restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression; and amending the News Media Law.

Considering America’s strategic competition with China, there are certainly geopolitical advantages to improving our relationship with Burma. But those benefits will be diminished or even lost if they come at the expense of meaningful improvements in human rights for the people of Burma.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

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