Burma Blunder

Human rights groups criticize Obama over Burma visit

Burmese President Thein Sein / AP
November 16, 2012

Burmese dissidents and human rights observers say President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Burma may confer undue legitimacy on a non-democratic government that continues to restrict freedoms and engage in ethnic cleansing.

Obama is scheduled to visit Burma on Monday during a tour of Asian nations that begins this weekend. He will become the first sitting United States president to visit the fledgling nation, which recently embarked on a pro-democracy push that many view as a superficial attempt to appease Western governments.

The regime of Burmese President Thein Sein continues to keep hundreds of political opponents in prison and has stood by as ethnic minorities were butchered by pro-government militias across the country.

Burmese opposition leaders say Obama’s visit is woefully premature. They are worried the presence of the American president will provide the Burmese regime a credibility boost it does not deserve.

"This trip will bring little or no benefit to the people of Burma but just further legitimize the Burmese regime’s power," said human rights activist Myra Dahgaypaw, who fled the ethnic cleansing in Burma’s northern Karen State.

"Ongoing human rights abuses including, but not limited to, rape, forced labor, forced relocation, extortion and looting, torture and extrajudicial killing, and land confiscation are happening all over the ethnic minority areas," added Dahgaypaw, who serves as a campaigns coordinator at the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

"All these happen with impunity—no one gets punished for killing or raping."

Obama’s impending visit prompted a delegation of lawmakers and human rights organizations to express multiple concerns.

"The U.S. must be careful to take no action that could be interpreted as endorsement of any misconduct or human rights lapses by the Burmese government of President Thein Sein, particularly while the Burmese government is still dominated by the military with a very brutal past," a bipartisan collation of lawmakers wrote to Obama on Thursday.

"The U.S. should not ignore state-sponsored persecution of these ethnic and religious minorities, especially during a high-profile presidential visit, and indeed raise these ongoing issues with the highest levels of the Burmese government as roadblocks to true peace and progress in a democratic and free Burma," wrote the lawmakers, among them Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), as well as Reps. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) and Henry Waxman (D., Calif.).

The human rights organizations separately expressed their "grave concern regarding continuing abuses against ethnic groups in Burma and the implications of [his] planned trip," according to a letter sent Thursday to Obama.

"By going under current circumstances, you take on a lot of responsibility for the future human rights situation in Burma."

The trip also led former Burmese political prisoner Aung Din to pen a sharp letter to the president.

"I strongly request you not to visit Burma for the time being," Din wrote to Obama in a Nov. 7 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Free Beacon.

Democracy has not fully taken root in the Burmese political system and ethnic warfare continues unimpeded, Din wrote.

"Incompetent judges are running ‘kangaroo courts’ with the support of corrupt and abusive law enforcement officers."

Oppressive regulations set forth by Burma’s former military leaders have yet to be repealed and civilian businesses are struggling to survive in an unfair marketplace, Din adds.

"I seriously doubt to call this situation a transition to democracy. That’s why, I request you not to visit Burma at this time," he wrote.

U.S.-based human rights groups have also expressed confusion over why they were not consulted by the White House prior to the trip.

"It took us by surprise," said director of the International Religious Freedom and the Southeast Asia programs at Freedom House Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn. "Now we’re in a position where the train has already left the station."

"We would have been happier had the president consulted with a number of different groups," Gunawardena-Vaughn said. "Our position is this trip was very hastily planned."

The Obama administration, which lifted economic sanctions on Burma in May, views the trip differently.

White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon argued Thursday that Obama can help lock in and encourage further reforms, according to reports.

Donilon argued that Burma could serve as a model for North Korea, another rogue regime that brutally oppresses its citizens.

"That is a path that if North Korea would address the nuclear issue would be available to them. We have said that from the outset. It's an important example for them to contemplate," the Associated Press quoted Donilon as saying.

But the Burmese dissident community is not convinced.

"It is unbelievable that from April to date, Obama has given the Burmese regime pretty much everything," said dissident Dahgaypaw. "And he gave always for free—the regime didn’t have to work for it. All they had to do is show a little gesture."

Burma is not the democracy it appears, Din wrote in his letter to the president.

"The country is still ruled by the Burmese military," Din wrote. "I would call this transition as a ‘transition to the establishment of military supremacy with limited democracy.’"

Continuing ethnic cleansing is the top concern for both dissident and human rights groups.

Human rights groups believe the relaxation of economic sanctions has only empowered Burma’s entrenched political and military leaders, many of whom stand to profit from the entrance of U.S. businesses.

Relief from sanctions has also failed to spur improvement in the humanitarian situation.

"U.S. policy of lifting economic pressure and restoration of full diplomatic relations with the government of Burma following some economic and political reforms has failed to bring any relief to those lacking humanitarian aid in Kachin state or to prevent further violence and abuses against other ethnic groups, particularly recently against the Rohingya," the joint letter states.

"The way the U.S. lifted sanctions was done thoughtlessly," said Kelley Currie, a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute. "In the past year they’ve lost sight of what our Burma policy is all about, which is democracy and human rights, not investment in business."