Obama Prepares to Travel to Myanmar at a Critical Time
by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 29, 2014
October 29, 2014
In addition, since the high point of Myanmar’s reform process in 2012 and early 2013, the country’s political opening has stalled and, in my opinion, slid backwards.
The recent murder of a Myanmar journalist while in army custody has highlighted the regression of the country’s media environment since 2012 and 2013. Although the online and print media in Myanmar remains far freer than it ever was under junta rule, journalists are once again being harassed, detained, tried—and apparently, murdered—by the military and police. In addition, journalists who dare the cover the conflict in western Myanmar’s Arakan State, where violence against Rohingya Muslims continues unabated, face severe threat from Buddhist paramilitary groups and their supporters.
The deteriorating media environment is not the only sign of Myanmar’s backsliding. Cease-fires between the government and several ethnic minority insurgencies are collapsing, with the insurgents and the army preparing for war again. Arakan State remains a humanitarian emergency, and Thein Sein’s government has taken few constructive measures to help restore order and rights in Arakan State. The government initially simply denied the violence in Arakan State, pretending that massacres of Rohingya had not happened and tossing foreign aid groups out of Arakan State. Now, the Thein Sein government has come up with a plan for the Rohingya that is unworkable and simply racist: It wants the Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengali” if they want to be granted Myanmar citizenship. If they do not accept this identification, the government plans to toss more Rohingya into detention camps. (A previous, military government stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, though many of them had lived in Myanmar for generations.) But self-identifying as Bengali is akin to Rohingya marking themselves as foreigners, since to them—and to other Burmese—the term Bengali suggests that they are not indeed from Myanmar, came to Myanmar illegally, and thus can be discriminated against.
Rohingya have few options. The NGO Arakan Project recently reported that over 100,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the past two years, with many dying at sea or finding themselves at the mercy of pirates, the ruthless Thai navy, and a human slavery trade that runs through Thailand.
Obama thus should use his time in Myanmar to highlight to Naypyidaw that, although the Obama administration has made rapprochement with Myanmar a major goal of its Asia policy, rapprochement increasingly depends on continued political reform in Myanmar. A rigged 2015 election, Obama should warn Naypyidaw, would immediately undermine U.S.-Myanmar relations, and a return to all-out war with ethnic insurgencies also should be a serious impediment to closer ties. Finally, Obama should make clear that the Thein Sein government’s proposed plan for the Rohingya is unsatisfactory and outright racist.
In my next post, I will look at how, despite its rich natural resources and large, untapped consumer market, Myanmar has thus far proven relatively unattractive for U.S. companies. As an article in the Wall Street Journal noted, despite the relaxation of U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, as of August 2014 U.S. companies have committed less than $250 million to investments in the country of fifty million people, a minuscule amount for a market the size of Myanmar.