Barack Obama is under pressure to address human rights concerns in Burma and Cambodia as he embarks on first foreign trip since re-election to southeast Asia.
The White House’s top adviser on Asia has been forced to justify Mr Obama’s historic trip to Burma on Monday, as the president comes under mounting pressure from human rights groups.
Activists claim his visit to the country is premature given Burma’s continuing record of human rights abuses.
“This is not a victory celebration,” said Danny Russel, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia.
“I want to be very clear that we see this visit as building on the progress that the Burmese government has made, but that they are at the beginning of a journey towards democracy and human rights. We are going in part to encourage them to continue down that road.”
Mr Obama’s brief visit to Burma – the first ever by a US president – was supposed to be the highlight of his three-day tour of southeast Asia, his first foreign trip since his re-election.
It begins on Sunday with a stop in Bangkok to meet Thailand’s King and the Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and ends on Tuesday in Cambodia where he will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and the East Asia Summit.
However the president’s tour threatens to be overshadowed by controversy. His visit to Rangoon, where he will meet both Burma’s president Thein Sein and the leader of the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi, comes against a backdrop of sectarian violence.
Clashes continue between the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority and the Buddhist majority in western Burma’s Rakhine State.
Both Mr Thein and Ms Suu Kyi have been criticised for their failure to act to stop the deadly clashes in Rakhine State that have left almost 200 people dead and seen over 110,000 mostly Rohingya people displaced since June.
“President Obama should be trying to secure an assurance from the Burmese government that Burma’s 1982 citizenship law be amended so that the Rohingya can be made Burmese citizens,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Telegraph. “It’s the fact that they are not citizens that make the Rohingya such easy targets.”
The Burmese government too, continues to hold an estimated 330 political prisoners, according to the opposition National League for Democracy. The release of some 452 prisoners on Thursday has been widely condemned as a ploy to court favour with Washington ahead of Mr Obama’s visit, after it emerged that none of the people freed were political detainees.
Previously, the US has made the release of all political prisoners a condition of the lifting of all sanctions against the former pariah state. However, following Washington’s decision to suspend economic sanctions in May, Mr Obama’s trip to Rangoon is being regarded as a green light for American companies to invest in Burma, as well as reducing the US’s ability to pressure the government on human rights.
Mr Obama’s trip to Cambodia for the 21st ASEAN Summit is also attracting unwelcome attention. His first visit to the country comes as violence against environmental and land activists has risen dramatically in the last year, as have restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
On Thursday, eight people from 400 families facing eviction from their homes close to the airport in the capital Phnom Penh who had painted SOS signs on their roofs to attract President Obama’s attention were arrested. “We are being forcibly evicted from our homes without proper compensation. We just wanted Obama to help us,” said one villager Sim Sokunthea.
Earlier in the week, attempts by a network of local rights organisations to hold meetings ahead of the ASEAN summit were disrupted by the authorities, leading activists to call on Mr Obama to put pressure on the government to end the harassment.
“We hope that President Obama will influence Prime Minister Hun Sen to adhere to international treaties and other human rights instruments that Cambodia has ratified,” said Naly Pilorge, the director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights.
Burma Mulls Rights for Rohingya
The country’s leader tells the UN he is prepared to address resettlement and citizenship issues facing the Rohingya.
A Buddhist Monk reads a local newspaper carrying a picture of President Barack Obama in Rangoon, Nov. 17, 2012.
In an assurance to the international community, Burmese President Thein Sein says his government will consider resolving contentious rights issues facing the Muslim Rohingya minority, including the possibility of providing them citizenship.
Thein Sein said the government is also prepared to look into the resettlement of tens of thousands of Rohingyas displaced by months of deadly communal violence with Rakhine Buddhists in western Rakhine state in recent months.
It was the clearest indication yet that the government is moving to address the plight of the Rohingyas and came ahead of U.S. leader Barack Obama’s historic visit to Burma, the first by a sitting American president.
The Burmese leader gave the assurances in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon on Friday, according to a statement from Ban’s spokesman that also contained excerpts from the letter.
“The United Nations will work closely with the government and people of Myanmar [Burma] to help the affected people in the Rakhine state as well as support the measures that will need to be taken to comprehensively address the issues at the heart of the situation there,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
In the letter, Thein Sein condemned the “criminal acts” of elements inside his country that caused the “senseless” communal violence in June and October that left about 180 dead and 110,000 homeless, according to official figures.
He promised to deal with the perpetrators of the violence in accordance with the rule of law.
He said that “once emotions subside on all sides,” his government would be prepared to “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship” for the Rohingyas.
It will also look at “issues of birth registration, work permits, and permits for movement across the country for all, in line with a uniform national practice across the country ensuring that they are in keeping with accepted international norms.”
Thein Sein also underlined the commitment of the government to meet the humanitarian needs of those affect by the violence and sought wider international assistance and cooperation in this regard, the UN spokesman said.
Rights groups said Burma’s 800,000 stateless Rohingyas, whom the United Nations considers among the world’s most persecuted minorities, bore the brunt of the violence, in which Rakhines were also among those killed and made homeless.
The Rohingyas have been viewed by the authorities and by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh even though they have lived in the country for generations.
It was not immediately clear what steps Thein Sein will take to resolve the Rohingya plight. Thein Sein had previously cited strict citizenship laws stating that only Rohingya whose families settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948 were considered citizens.
Separately, on Friday, Thein Sein met senior members of the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Burma, including members of the clergy, and strongly called on them to exert maximum effort to foster harmony and cooperation between the communities.
“The [U.N.] Secretary-General welcomes both President U [honorific] Thein Sein’s letter as well as his recent meeting as positive steps in the right direction,” his spokesman said.
“He further welcomes the assurances conveyed on behalf of the Government of Myanmar [Burma], in respect of the immediate and longer term issues connected with the troubles in Rakhine that would be carefully noted by the international community.”
White House calls
The White House had urged Thein Sein to take urgent action to end the strife in Rakhine state in calls made ahead of Obama’s visit.
It said that the U.S. leader will press the matter, along with demands to free political prisoners as the Southeast Asian country transitions to democracy after a half-century of military rule, with Thein Sein.
Obama departed on Saturday for a three-country swing, with the highlight to be the landmark stop in Burma, a former pariah state, aside from visits to Cambodia and Thailand.
On the eve of his trip, the United States scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the long-isolated nation, opening up to products from the country with the exception of gems, a sector seen as a major driver of corruption and violence.
The move is “intended to support the Burmese government’s ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses,” a statement from the State and Treasury departments said on Friday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had pledged to normalize trade relations with Burma when in September in New York she met with President Thein Sein, who has launched a wave of democratic reforms since his nominally civilian government took over in March last year after decades of harsh military rule.
The administration issued a waiver on the import ban, which was imposed by Congress in 2003, and the law remains in place if officials decide to resume the sanctions.
Burma’s Forgotten Dilemma
Will 140,000 refugees in Thailand seeking safety from the world’s longest-running civil war ever be able to go home?
From the main road, Mae La looks much like a traditional Thai village. Smoke rises from thatched, wooden homesteads which straddle a hillside carved up by dirt tracks.
Close to the Burma border, Mae La is the largest of 10 refugee camps in Thailand and has since 1984 served as a home to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the world’s longest-running civil war in adjacent Karen State.
But since a ceasefire between the Burmese army and Karen rebels signed in January and government reforms, Human rights groups and aid agencies have started talking of the possibility that many of Thailand’s roughly 140,000 Burmese refugees may soon return home. The vast majority are Karen, while the other main minority – the Karenni – is also starting to look at repatriation.
Still, Dah Eh Kler, general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) which monitors conditions on both sides of the border, suggests an area which has seen over 60 years of warfare will take time to support normal, everyday life.
“We are encouraged by the changes in Burma but there are many improvements that would need to happen before refugees would be safe to return,” she said.
The most pressing concern coming out of recent repatriation discussions with refugees is the presence of Burmese Army soldiers strategically positioned throughout the long, thin strip of land that is Karen State.
For decades, rights groups have documented Burmese Army orders instructing whole villages to relocate to “secure” areas away from Karen insurgents. Their wording was usually a variation on the same theme: “Anyone found hiding in the villages will be shot.”
During a third round of peace talks this month, the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the insurgents, made a request to the Burmese government’s chief negotiator Aung Min that the army withdraw soldiers from areas close to Karen villages. They are still awaiting a response as President Thein Sein’s office consults with the Burmese Ministry of Defense.
Karen State remains one of the most heavily mined areas on the planet, another major concern for returning refugees, many of whom have already lost legs in the jungle. Up until at least the end of last year, reporting in the area by the Karen Human Rights Group suggested both the Burmese Army and rebel Karen National Liberation Army were still laying anti-personnel mines.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that although the Burmese Army has started to use bulldozers to clear mines, this remains a haphazard process. Some mines are signposted with skull and crossbones, but hundreds lie hidden.
“There has been little progress in demining,” said Robertson.
Almost every societal need is missing in much of eastern Burma including basic water and sanitation. Schools are mostly ad hoc and inferior to those in Thai refugee camps, particularly Mae La, as is the almost non-existent healthcare.
About 200-plus Burmese per day journey across the border to seek medical care at Mae Tao Clinic a few kilometers inside Thailand in Mae Sot.
“Our services are still very much needed along the border as the government has a long way to go to provide adequate healthcare to the people of Burma, especially those in ethnic areas,” said Dr Cynthia Maung, founder of the clinic.
Realizing the gap between services for refugees on the Thai side and those over the border in Karen State, the Burmese government has in recent months started to look at humanitarian and economic projects in this war-torn area.
During the recent peace negotiations, the Burmese government delegation reportedly talked enthusiastically about setting up factories and farms to offer employment. Meanwhile, the new Myanmar Peace Support Initiative has established a model village in Bago Division where internally displaced people in eastern Burma can access emergency assistance.
Closer to the border, the KNU has recently set up a handful of liaison offices to increase interaction between themselves, government forces and its proxy militias.
“There have been some remarkable changes that do give rise to hope,” said Bill Frelick, the head of HRW’s refugee program.
Amid this changing situation, some donors who fund refugee programs in Thailand have shown greater interest in spending money inside Burma and on programs to teach refugees vocational skills.
“Strategy was developed which would shift donor funding away from simple provision of food and other basic services towards more sustainable solutions,” said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the European Commission’s aid program ECHO, which has provided 24 million euros (US$31.35m) for Burma funding this year.
The Karen Refugee Committee invited key humanitarian agencies including the Thailand Burma Border Consortium and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to a first repatriation workshop with refugees in June. Karenni groups are due to hold their first parallel workshop this month.
“It is still too early to discuss logistical planning in the form of transportation, cross-border procedures, etc. ” says Vivian Tan, a spokesman for UNHCR, which coordinates aid agencies in the camps.
A key concern is the paperwork which should state each and every refugee is a Burmese citizen and that they own the land in Karen, Karenni and other areas to which they plan to return. But few ID cards have been issued and there are already reports of people returning to find some villages have turned into economic concessions doled out to friends of the Burmese army and its proxy militias.
Karen refugees are indicating they want to return in the manner in which they first arrived in Thailand – en masse to provide safety in numbers and in the same structure as their original villages. Refugees and Karen groups have also stressed that the move back should be a test at first so that they can exit back to Thailand if things turn ugly again.
On the Thai side, the department that governs aid agencies under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to Human Rights Watch this month which read that “Thailand is in no hurry to rush this matter.”
A few days later, the Thai National Security Council issued a statement which appeared to be more impatient, suggesting refugees “may return within a year.”
For the moment though, UNHCR, aid agencies and the refugees themselves remain reluctant to commit to anything approaching a specific date for what would be a landmark return.
“We hope that we can go home one day soon,” said the KWO’s Dah Eh Kler, who herself fled fighting as a child. “But it is just not possible under the current conditions in Karen areas.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.
Aung San Suu Kyi Explains Silence on Rohingyas
NEW DELHI — Burmese opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi has called recent ethnic violence in Burma between Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims a huge international tragedy. Her visit to India is helping rebuild ties between Burmese pro-democracy campaigners and the Indian leadership, which had withered under Burma’s military government.
As Aung San Suu Kyi met top Indian leaders in New Delhi to lobby for their support for democracy in Burma, she responded to criticism that she has not spoken out about violence involving Rohingya Muslims – a minority community in Burma’s Rakhine district.
Dozens of people have been killed in the clashes and some 110,000 displaced since the violence first started in June.
Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday told an Indian news channel that the violence was a “huge international tragedy.” She said she had not spoken on behalf of Rohingya Muslims, because she wanted to promote reconciliation between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.
“But don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides. And, also I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides,” she said.
Burma considers the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants. Aung San Suu Kyi said illegal crossing of the border from Bangladesh has to be stopped.
In India, several commentators compared Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingyas to New Delhi’s abandonment of her pro-democracy cause in the 1990s. At that time, Indian authorities drew close to Burmese military rulers, prompted by India’s strategic need to maintain friendly relations with the neighboring country.
But now both sides are reaching out to each other. Aung San Suu Kyi’s message in India was forthright. During a lecture on Wednesday she said that Burma needs India’s support for political reforms.
“We have not yet achieved the goal of democracy,” she said. “We are still trying and we hope that in this last, I hope, and most difficult phase the people of India will stand by us and walk by us as we proceed along the path that they were able to proceed many years before us.”
After a meeting, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told her that “our good wishes are with you as indeed with your struggle for democracy.”
On her part, Aung San Suu Kyi did not hide her disappointment with India’s past record, but says she is setting faith in close ties between the people of the two countries.
“India had drawn away from us in our very difficult days. But I had faith in the lasting friendship between the two countries based on lasting friendship between our two peoples. This is what I would like to emphasize again and again. Friendship between countries should be based on friendship between peoples and not friendship between governments. Governments come and go and that is what democracy is all about,” she said.
Political observers say, although India has welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to the political stage in Burma, it will strike a balance in repairing ties with pro democracy campaigners and maintaining its ties with Burma’s military generals.
The U.S.–Thailand Alliance and President Obama’s Trip to Asia
President Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia this week will take him to Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ meetings in Phnom Penh is the occasion for the transpacific flight, and Burma will generate the most news.
It is Thailand, however, that is the most strategically important part of the trip. The political establishment in Washington, over many years and on a bipartisan basis, has not given Thailand the sort of sustained attention it deserves as a treaty ally. President Obama’s visit to Bangkok is an opportunity to right the alliance ship and chart a clear course for the future.
Necessary Investments in ASEAN
The visit to Phnom Penh is all about America’s long-term commitment to an ASEAN-centered regional diplomatic architecture. As chair of ASEAN this year, Cambodia is merely hosting its annual meetings, including the U.S.–ASEAN leaders’ summit and the East Asia Summit (a gathering of ASEAN heads of government plus eight other regional powers, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and China).
Highest on the agenda for these meetings should be America’s interest in freedom of navigation in the western Pacific. The Chinese won the Scarborough Shoal dispute with America’s Philippine allies this summer. They are now calling the U.S. out on the Senkakus in an apparent attempt to erode Japanese administrative control of nearby waters. The difference between civilian and military did not much matter to the outcome at Scarborough, and if the Chinese are allowed to establish a semblance of control around the Senkakus, it will not matter there either. President Obama should be clear in these meetings and in his meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that current Chinese behavior in the South and East China Seas is unacceptable—regardless of the ship captain’s chain of command.
Beyond tabling the American perspective and seeking broad agreement on principles, however, there is a real limit to how much the President can accomplish in these meetings.
Burma ’s Complicated Strategic Value
Many in the Washington policy community and media portray the recent thaw in U.S.–Burma relations as a geostrategic watershed. Indeed, depending on developments on the ground in Burma, it may ultimately live up to its billing.
Often overlooked are the much different interests the sides have in the thaw. The still military-dominated Burmese government’s interest lies in balancing the U.S. and China against one another. Burma needs American engagement because the balance has gotten off-kilter, and neither ASEAN nor India is enough to fix it.
The long-term U.S. interest is in genuine systemic political change in Burma. Locking in democratic reforms would contribute more to Burma’s strategic orientation than short-term U.S. diplomatic jockeying. The real prize is national elections in 2015. The bets the Administration is placing on the current regime are most valuable as inducements to keep reforms on track through 2015 and the inauguration of a truly representative government. As it moves forward, it should keep enough sanctions leverage in the tank to press for free and fair elections. At the current pace it is lifting sanctions, it will be empty by then.
In the meantime, U.S. interaction with Burma is more about limiting downsides, not allowing China to run the table. Beyond this, the strategic payoff is in the distance, uncertain and subject to a number of political variables.
Unlike ASEAN and Burma, Thailand has already demonstrated its enormous value to the U.S. It is a U.S. security treaty partner; co-host of the largest annual joint military exercise in the world, Cobra Gold, as well more than 40 other smaller ones; a demonstrated partner in counterterrorism; and a through point for America’s military logistics chain into Afghanistan and the Middle East. And it is America’s oldest trading ally in the region, dating back to the 1833 Treaty on Amity and Commerce.
Despite all this, since the end the Vietnam War, Thailand has suffered from American diplomatic neglect. When President Bill Clinton went there in 1996, he was the first President to visit in 27 years. President Bush visited in 2003 and again in 2008. The presidential visits were welcomed, but on the Thai side, they seemed to be more about the region beyond Thailand—APEC, Burma, and China. One can make too much of presidential visits, but in this case, the perception of American disinterest has facilitated drift in the alliance.
President Obama’s visit can begin to remedy this problem. In the end, however, if relations are not sustained and substantiated, it will just be another presidential visit, a bump in the road of Thailand’s long-term recalculation of its regional alignments—in essence, closer ties with the region’s fastest growing reality, the People’s Republic of China.
Follow Through with Bangkok
Following up on his visit, the President should:
- Facilitate Thailand’s entry into the Transpacific Partnership trade negotiations. Thai authorities this week have indicated that they are ready to announce an intention to join the talks during President Obama’s visit. There are major procedural hurdles to be overcome, both domestically and vis-à-vis the other members of the 11-member free trade pact. Thailand will require continued reassurance and cajoling regarding the deal’s value in order to avoid the fate of the U.S.–Thailand Free Trade Agreement, negotiations on which collapsed in 2006. The Thais will also have to come to the table fully prepared to make compromises.
- Keep broad strategic issues on the back burner. The 2012 Joint Vision Statement for the Thai–U.S. Defense Alliance, signed by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Thai Defense Minister Sukampol Suwannathat in advance of President Obama’s visit, highlights some important big-picture priorities, including a crucial commitment to “open access by all to shared maritime, space and cyber domains.” Going much deeper at this point is bound to raise more problems than it solves, particularly over the way the two sides view China’s contribution to problems in these very areas.
- Protect and enhance the U.S.–Thailand military-to-military relationship. While the U.S. and Thailand navigate the political shoals in Bangkok, the U.S. can move unilaterally to deepen the relationship. Thailand should receive far more in the win-win assistance categories of I-MET and FMF assistance and secure more slots at U.S. military academies, war colleges, and staff colleges. These programs and the current robust schedule of joint military exercises and deployments are the peacetime glue that holds the military alliance together.
- Invite the Thai Prime Minister to Washington for an official visit. Beyond the powerful symbolic value, the Administration could use the visit as an occasion to expand the U.S.–Thailand Strategic Dialogue to a 2 x 2 format that brings together the defense and foreign affairs secretaries of both sides. Political divisions in Thailand should not prevent full, highly visible engagement with its political leadership. The U.S. deals successfully with the rapid rotation of Japanese prime ministers and cabinets. There is no reason that the U.S. cannot do the same with Thailand, especially with sustained bureaucratic contact at lower levels.
Where the Real Value Is
Engagement with ASEAN may be critical to an effective approach to the region, but it has very serious limitations, while Burma’s strategic value is far from certain. Headlines aside, it is Thailand where the U.S. has real strategic opportunity. The U.S. Administration needs to prioritize the U.S.–Thailand alliance and patiently coax out more of its great value.