As Obama hosts the Burmese President, he must address the regime’s dreadful human rights record

Setting aside the ethics of this approach - which is unlikely to be altered anytime soon - the US can still afford to get tough with Burma without losing purchase over the Burmese government.

Burma Obama

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist based in New Zealand. He recently travelled to Burma

When Cyclone Mahasen weakened and changed course last week, sparing 130,000 or so ethnic Rohingyas living in displacement camps in western Burma from certain humanitarian disaster, it was only a temporary reprieve.

Worse is yet to come for this long-persecuted and deeply vulnerable minority. The imminent rainy season, which lasts for several months, will bring with it the potential for thousands of preventable deaths as a result of the living conditions in their de facto ghettos in Rakhine state, which, due in no small part to government negligence, are set to be ravaged by flooding and water-borne diseases.

The government of Burmese President Thein Sein, currently being hosted by Barack Obama in Washington, has done next to nothing to prevent this impending crisis. Many other outstanding issues in the realm of human rights – not least in regard to ongoing abuses in Kachin state – have tarnished Burma’s image and dented the nation’s increasingly questionable reformist credentials.

Nonetheless, Washington has seen fit to welcome Thein Sein to the White House in a landmark display of strengthening US-Burma ties and what some regard to be a sign of the Asian nation’s ‘return to international favour‘.

In preparation for the big event the White House Press Secretary even referred to the visiting President’s homeland as ‘Myanmar’ for the first time, a deeply symbolic act realised in an official statement last week. The name was changed from Burma to Myanmar by the military Junta in the late eighties without domestic consultation and was immediately shunned by Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of the nation’s democracy movement, who encouraged others to refrain from its use.

Warmer relations

Myanmar or not, the degree of legitimisation the former pariah state has enjoyed in recent months has been considerable, with the European Union having permanently lifted sanctions, trade ties with the US being intensified – and now today’s big event.

Where the West is concerned, it would appear that Burma’s government is being brought in from the cold, and fast.

Perhaps too fast, however. There are reasonable questions to be asked about just how progressive Thein Sein’s leadership has been, and whether the successive benefits gained by the political elite of Burma are commensurate with the sacrifices they have made.

Yes, political prisoners have been freed: yet many of them – such as U Gambira, leader of the Saffron Revolution who was sentenced for over 60 years after committing the ‘crime’ of writing op-eds critical of the regime – should never have been sentenced in the first place. He has since suffered re-arrest and harassment.

It is true that the democratisation process has been advanced; but the new constitution, drafted under the auspices of figures from the former Junta, ensures that ultimate power, including the right to dismiss the civilian government, rests in the hands of the military. The judiciary still lacks genuine independence and remains heavily politicised.

Ongoing abuses

The need for a critical assessment of emerging western policy toward Burma appears especially urgent when one considers claims recently made by Human Rights Watch relating to grave offences allegedly committed by government agencies: namely, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

The alleged abuses were purported to have taken place last year in the country’s western Rakhine state, resulting in the mass displacement of the Rohingya. Indications that government departments have been active in ongoing cleansing efforts against the Rohingya this year only add to the case for rethinking the pace of western rapprochement with Naypyidaw.

The West does not have to abandon current policies of direct engagement with Burma in order to increase pressure on its government over human rights. It is a virtual truism in informed circles that the United States’ number one objective in the region is to roll back Chinese influence in neighbouring nations and make important strategic gains.

Setting aside the ethics of this approach – which is unlikely to be altered anytime soon – the US in particular (but also Britain) can still afford to get tough with Burma without losing purchase over the government, given the pivotal role they have played in the country’s recent fortunes. Not to do so would be shameful in the extreme.

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