Washington has penalised Thein Sein's government for not doing enough to stop violence against minorities; the rest of the international community must break its silence and follow suit
Nobody said the road of democratic reform would be smooth and direct for Myanmar, whose latest bitter setback came with the United States extending economic sanctions against the country for another year.
President Barack Obama told Congress that despite some positive steps on reform, Myanmar must do more if the US is to give its government a clean bill of health.
The sanctions remain in place under the National Emergencies Act, which prohibits US businesses and individuals from investing in Myanmar or doing business with individuals involved in repression of democratic development.
Obama, who visited the country in 2012, said the Myanmar government had made some progress, pointing to the release of more than 1,100 political prisoners, improvement in labour laws, and the push for a nationwide ceasefire.
However, “the situation in the country continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”, he said.
“The political opening remains nascent, and concerns persist regarding ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in Rakhine State, and the continued role of the military in the country’s political and economic activities,” Obama added.
Patrick Ventrell, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, announced the US had extended the penalties for another year “in order to maintain the flexibility necessary to sanction bad actors and prevent backsliding on reform even as we broadly ease sanctions”.
Last year the US lifted a travel ban imposed on the rulers of Myanmar’s previous military government and their business cronies. But as Ventrell pointed out, significant worries remain, including widespread and orchestrated violence against Muslims and other minority groups.
While Washington stopped short of blaming the Thein Sein administration for the violence, the sanctions nevertheless lend credibility to claims by human rights organisations and activists that the government is turning a blind eye to the attacks or perhaps even instigating them.
The recent official denial of a claimed massacre of Muslims in Du Chee Yar Tan, Rakhine State is a case in point. The claims were backed by a United Nations’ investigation, not yet made public, which said at least 40 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the incident.
The massacre, coupled with the denial, add to evidence that the post-junta government is doing little to rein in militant Buddhists and other nationalist elements fomenting violence against minorities. Besides not doing enough to protect them, the government has also backed severe restrictions on the basic rights of Muslims, such as their freedom of movement in Rakhine State.
Under the watch of the post-junta government, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been forced out of their homes by mob violence. Some have taken their chance on the high seas, making perilous journeys that often end in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or in being sold into slavery.
The violence against Muslims is also a test case for Western countries and the donor community, which have poured aid and investment into Myanmar. So far, many have chosen to remain quiet in the hope that Nay Pyi Taw would change its attitude towards the Muslims and other minorities.
But now that Washington has taken the lead, it’s time that the international community broke its silence and added to the pressure for reform. Otherwise, this ethnically diverse country of more than 60 million people is in danger of slipping back into the violent and repressive ways of its decades under military dictatorship.