Christian Caryl

Burma’s Moment of Truth

Burma’s halting progress toward democracy has stalled. It’s time for the United States to get off the fence.

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So the Burmese government has finally set a date for the next national election. That’s good news. At least we know that there’s definitely going to be a vote. The government’s dithering had raised fears that it might be angling for a postponement.

Yet Burma’s tribulations are far from over. The country’s nascent democracy is in deep trouble. And you don’t have to rely on me as the source. Just ask the Burmese.

Recently I had the privilege to meet up here in Washington with Wai Wai Nu, a 27-year-old Burmese political activist. She had come to speak with U.S. government officials and human rights organizations, but ended up getting a bit more than she’d bargained for. On June 23, President Barack Obama invited her (and a diverse bunch of American Muslims) to the White House for iftar, the evening meal that marks the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast. Wai Wai Nu is a Rohingya, the Muslim minority that has been the object of considerable violence and discrimination in Burma in recent years.

It was a thrilling experience for her. She even got to sit at the president’s table, one chair away from him, and she was so excited, she told me, that she actually forgot to eat. “Oh my god, it was so special,” she said, laughing incredulously. “There I was, from the most persecuted group in Burma, meeting a man from a persecuted group who’s now the most powerful person in the world.”

The feeling was especially poignant for a young woman who spent seven years in prison — not for anything she did, but solely because of who she is.

In 2005, her father, an activist and ex-member of parliament, publicly criticized the harsh military junta that was ruling the country. He also openly sided with opposition leader and Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then still under house arrest. In retaliation, the regime decided to jail not only him but also the rest of his family (Wai Wai Nu and her mother, sister, and brother). They were released in 2012 as part of an amnesty for political prisoners ordered by the reformist government of President Thein Sein, who has said that he wants to move the country away from its old authoritarian ways.

When I asked her what she told President Obama, she demurred, saying that she didn’t feel it was appropriate to share their conversation. But she was quite clear about the message she’s trying to convey to the U.S. government. The situation is desperate, she told me, and Washington is standing quietly by as matters deteriorate. She wants the Americans to send a clear signal to Burma’s leaders that further backsliding on democratic reforms won’t be tolerated.

“We’re experiencing a deterioration of human rights violations in every sector,” she told me firmly. “There should be a return to sanctions.” In 2013, the U.S. began suspending some of its long-standing sanctions against Burma’s military regime. Now Wai Wai Nu wants to see some of those restrictions reinstated — specifically the ones that target particularly odious regime figures with visa bans. That’s the only way, she says, to ensure that the government will stick to its promise to allow a free and fair election. “We appreciate the U.S. concern about our country and our cause — but we should have more concrete action, rather than just expressing worries in a statement.”

She’s right to worry. Jennifer Quigley, head of the non-profit U.S. Campaign for Burma, says that the U.S. is soft-pedaling its message to the Burmese authorities. Rather than demanding “free and fair” elections in November, Quigley says, the State Department is opting instead for the words “credible, transparent, and inclusive” — intentionally setting the bar low, she says, so that Washington can maintain a good relationship with the Burmese government even if the vote turns out to be less than democratic. She wants the U.S. to restore some individual sanctions and to hold off on granting trade benefits to Burma.

(Asked to comment on Quigley’s critique of its formula, a U.S. State Department spokesperson responded that it uses those terms “because they are more precise in describing the key elements of a successful election,” and added that, “in the end, the credibility of the elections will be determined by the extent to which the people of Burma have confidence in the fairness of the electoral process and believe the election results accurately reflect their collective will.”)

To be sure, Burma has come a long way in the past few years — at least in some respects. Wai Wai Nu admits that the country has experienced real change since the government started to open up four years ago. A 2012 election allowed a handful of opposition members, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, to enter parliament. Journalists found themselves with the space to discuss long-taboo topics. Foreigners flooded in. Once-drowsy Rangoon, the country’s biggest city, was suddenly dotted by construction sites and filled with cars. The government vowed to negotiate an end to the 67-year civil war.

Yet over the past year it’s become a lot harder to feel optimistic. President Thein Sein’s government has succumbed to drift and indecision. The military, still the country’s best-organized institution, has seized the opportunity to push back, hard. Wai Wai Nu notes that military lawmakers in parliament have frustrated efforts to change the constitution, which guarantees the armed forces a leading role in political life. Journalists are being thrown into jail again, and in some cases even killed. Farmers are complaining of a surge in illegal land seizures. Fighting has flared up again between government troops and rebels. The peace process has stalled (though there have been signs of hope over the past few days).

And then there’s the plight of her people, the Rohingya, whose situation has actually gone downhill since Burma began opening up five years ago. Three years ago, ethnic tensions between the Rohingya and their Buddhist neighbors exploded into open conflict. Hundreds of Rohingya were killed. The authorities, supported by increasingly militant Buddhist nationalists, seized the opportunity to move many Rohingya into internment camps. The government has effectively deprived many Rohingya — who are often depicted as “illegal immigrants” from neighboring Bangladesh even though the overwhelming majority of them have lived in the country for generations — of the right to vote. Violence and discrimination have prompted many to flee the country in desperation, often with catastrophic results.

“People say that Burma is changing, moving forward,” Wai Wai Nu told me. “But how is it a success story if we’re facing extinction? We’re facing ethnic cleansing, people dying in the sea. What does democracy mean then?” She cites recent measures that deprive Rohingya of their voting rights, as well as a package of discriminatory laws, sponsored by ultranationalist Buddhist monks, designed “to protect the race and religion” of Burma’s majority Buddhists. (Two of the four bills have become law, while the rest are still working their way through parliament.) What’s worse, even some pro-democracy activists have been jumping on the nationalist bandwagon, raising the specter of a future “tyranny by the majority.”

She shook her head. “When a minority isn’t enjoying freedom with you, that isn’t democracy. Everyone in the society should enjoy freedom. Unless everyone’s rights and freedoms are protected, you will never achieve democracy and freedom in your society.” These aren’t abstract issues for Wai Wai Nu. As we parted, she mentioned that the son of a prominent politician back home had posted a statement on Facebook attacking her meeting with President Obama. How could a mere “Bengali,” he sneered, claim to represent Burma in the White House?

This is a critical moment in Burma’s democratic evolution, and the United States shouldn’t stand by. Washington should do what it can to ensure that the forces of intolerance and autocracy don’t win the upper hand.

(The photo above shows police confronting student protesters on June 30.)
Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl