Two politicians instrumental in Myanmar's conversion to democracy can only watch in despair as it slides back into bad old authoritarian ways
One morning in late 2011, Hillary Clinton visited Aung San Suu Kyi’s weathered, lakeside villa to talk politics. It was the early days of Myanmar’s transformation from an authoritarian pariah state to a budding democracy, and the meeting was historic: No senior US official had visited the country in 50 years and Suu Kyi had spent the last 15 of those under house arrest. The talks between the US secretary of state and the leading icon of Myanmar’s embattled democracy movement became a powerful symbol of progress for a country trying to climb out from under decades of political and economic misrule.
But today, the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms. That’s causing genuine alarm in Washington among lawmakers from both parties. The US lower House unanimously passed a resolution this week calling on Myanmar’s government to respect the human rights of all minority groups in the country and end the persecution of the Rohingya people, a stateless Muslim ethnic group that has been singled out by both Rakhine Buddhists and the government of Myanmar.
“As the government of Burma transitions from decades-long military rule to a civilian government, it is important to hold them accountable for persistent human rights abuses,” New York Congressman Eliot Engel, the most senior Democrat on the House panel, said on Tuesday.
What happens in Myanmar has implications for Clinton as she prepares for a potential presidential bid for the White House in 2016. Until now, the Myanmar portfolio has been widely viewed as the “one clear-cut triumph” of her tenure as secretary of state – a tenure in danger of being viewed as underwhelming and overly cautious when compared to that of her successor, John Kerry, who has taken on the Gordian knot of the Middle East peace process.
Now, as the civilian regime that replaced Myanmar’s military junta embraces increasingly brutal tactics against Muslim minority populations, the jewel in the crown of Clinton’s tenure risks vanishing into thin air. “Things have gone from bad to worse,” said Tom Andrews, president of United to End Genocide, a group that monitors violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the country.
The dip in progress in Myanmar comes as Clinton and her phalanx of political supporters race to paint her tenure at the State Department in as positive a light as possible ahead of her prospective presidential run. This June, Clinton will publish a memoir chronicling the highlights of her work as secretary of state.
Her career is under an equal amount of scrutiny from Republicans, who see the unrest in Myanmar as a powerful counter-argument to the hyperbole over Clinton’s diplomatic record.
Myanmar is making progress on several fronts, but the success of the transition hinges on the government’s ability to meet three primary challenges: reining in a corrupt and rapacious military, resolving a decades-long civil war with ethnic minority states, and revising a flawed and undemocratic constitution. Of those challenges, the issue of human rights has proven to be the biggest stumbling block by far for Myanmar’s leaders and a persistent thorn in the side of US diplomacy.
After Clinton’s first visit to Myanmar in December 2011, the country’s political transformation proceeded swiftly. The following March, a mostly free by-election saw Aung San Suu Kyi appointed to parliament and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win 43 of 46 parliamentary seats.
By summer 2012, the Obama administration had begun easing sanctions on Myanmar, waiving bans on US investment and the export of financial services to the country.
Myanmar’s ruler, Thein Sein, responded in kind by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, engaging the NLD in parliament, abolishing official media censorship board. And, in one of the biggest economic reforms intended to stabilise the economy and encourage foreign investment, the Central Bank floated its currency’s exchange rate for the first time.
But the initial groundbreaking successes have given way to vicious ethnic flare-ups that continue to alarm international observers.
Since Clinton’s first visit, sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims has gradually escalated, culminating in a series of deadly attacks on Muslims across the country. More than 600,000 people have been displaced by civil conflict, and nearly 1 million are in need of humanitarian aid, according to USAID. And in Rakhine, Human Rights Watch has accused state security forces of carrying out a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya people.
These setbacks peaked this year, beginning with reports in January that a mob of police and Rakhine villagers had massacred up to 49 Rohingyas, including children. The UN called on the government to immediately investigate. But Thein Sein’s office, to the dismay of both human rights groups and US officials, continues to deny that any such event occurred. The following month, the State Department highlighted the plight of the Rohingya in its 2013 human rights report, saying there were “credible reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detentions and torture” against the group. The report also noted continued abuses by government soldiers, “including killings, beatings, torture, forced labour, forced relocations, and rapes of members of ethnic groups in Shan, Kachin, Mon and Karen states”.
Making matters worse, the government last month ousted Doctors Without Borders from Rakhine state, claiming that the humanitarian organisation was “biased” toward the Rohingya, a group that Myanmar authorities do not officially recognise. Sentiment against aid workers sympathetic toward Rohingya reached a head when a mob of over 1,000 Buddhists attacked the homes and offices of international aid workers in Rakhine state.
Many in Congress have grown increasingly frustrated with what they see as an Obama administration effort to claim success in Myanmar at the expense of addressing dire problems in the country.
“The administration has lost sight of the reality on the ground because they’ve been trying to tout successes,” Steve Chabot, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said. “I think the administration has rushed a lot of rewards and concessions and deals when they’re just not warranted.”
A key sticking point is the issue of military-to-military engagement with Myanmar’s army, which has a long history of human rights abuses. In February, for the first time army officials from Myanmar participated in Thailand’s US-led military exercise Cobra Gold, the largest annual multinational exercise in Asia. Given the state of human rights abuses in the country, both Democrats and Republicans on the committee said the engagement was inappropriate.
The US needs to “keep the pressure on the Burmese military to reform”, Chabot said, otherwise, “a lot of civilians in the country are going to pay a high price for this”.
Recent democratic reforms have proven ineffective at reducing the military’s role in everyday life. In January, a group of 13 women’s rights groups in Myanmar released a damning report documenting more than 100 recent cases of rape committed by state security forces against women in conflict areas – highlighting the military’s apparent immunity from rule of law.
“The military doctrine has not changed,” said Christina Fink, an expert on Myanmar’s military at George Washington University. Though she acknowledges that the country’s armed forces should be engaged on some level, Fink argues that the military is, in some ways, being left behind in the transition – able to remain the same, potentially at the expense of other reforms.
David Mathieson, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Myanmar, argues that further military support will only embolden Myanmar’s armed forces. “The military has got off scot-free,” he said. “And the West is in a position where they don’t want to speak out more because they don’t want to endanger the programmes they’ve already invested in.”
According to reports, Clinton’s memoir will try to promote her leadership role in the Arab Spring, including the ouster of Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi. But the democratic uprisings in the Middle East have lost much of their lustre given Egypt’s return to military rule, Syria’s catastrophic descent into civil war and the deadly assault on US officials in Benghazi, Libya following Gadhafi’s overthrow.
Others argue that foreign-policy achievements don’t win elections, so any harm to her electability will be minimal. “I don’t know the long term odds of whether this effort [in Myanmar] will be successful,” said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the National Security Council. “I do believe with 100 per cent certainty that not a single voter will make their decision based on her policy towards Burma. You’ll be lucky if they know where the [expletive] it is.”
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s own hopes of being elected leader of her country next year look to be fading. The government is blocking her bid to scrap an article in the current junta-drafted-constitution that bars her from running in the 2015 presidential election because she has children who hold foreign passports.