When then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in 2011 the entire nation seemed to roll out the red carpet for her.
Everyone paid attention. Three years later, her successor John Kerry is set to arrive and no one seems interested, not even the media. Perhaps Washington should consider the reasons behind this lack of interest in a visit by its top diplomat.
Currently, Myanmar journalists are being oppressed. Some are facing charges that carry long prison sentences, while others are serving 10-year sentences with hard labour. A handful of those close to the government and its cronies have monopolised the media. The survival of a free press is in doubt.
Meanwhile, the US State Department invited deputy information minister and the President’s spokeperson U Ye Htut – the official widely seen as most responsible for the crackdown on journalists – to attend a foreign policy course in the US. He becomes a minister soon after his return.
The American Embassy here has helped some journalists pursue journalism studies in the US. It also holds media workshops and conferences in cooperation with the Ministry of Information, even as the ministry leads a crackdown on the media.
The US continues this policy even at a time when the Myanmar government is oppressing the media. Even worse is a report on Myanmar issued by the US-backed International Republican Institute (IRI) on April 3 this year. The IRI’s report was greeted with derision in public circles here and abroad. The report makes some odd claims about the Myanmar public’s views on their current government. The military ranks first in the poll on public satisfaction, with 84 per cent of support. The report’s answer to the question of whom is the public’s favourite among President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and Thura Shwe Mann was President Thein Sein. Cue more laughter.
Key points on Myanmar that US congressmen have highlighted to John Kerry ahead of his visit are:
1. Ongoing religious conflict;
2. Prolonged war in ethnic areas, and ethnic minorities living in camps for internally displaced people;
3. Long-term imprisonment of journalists;
4. Delayed constitutional reform and;
5. Uncertain conditions in the run up to the 2015 election.
This assessment is realistic, as far as it goes.
However, the US embassy in Myanmar and the US Department of State have chosen not to address those realities. This fact is well known to the Myanmar people and the country’s media. This is why the pending visit of John Kerry has draws little attention among the Myanmar people.
President Obama’s historic speech in Egypt proved premature. It is important that his democracy-advocating speech at Yangon University in 2012 does not suffer the same fate. Unnecessarily close personal ties of officials at the US Embassy and US Department of State, including diplomats, with officials at the Myanmar Peace Centre, the Ministry of Information and other government agencies are dangerous for both the Myanmar people and the long-term impact of the policies of the US Department of State.
Eleven Media calls on Washington to respect the democratic desires of the Myanmar people and refrain from repeating the mistakes it has made in transitional countries from Egypt to Libya and – closer to home – Cambodia.