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Hillary’s Myanmar problem

By Catherine A. Traywick and John Hudson
April 4, 2014

What happens in the country is believed to have implications for the former US first lady’s potential bid for White House in 2016, but foreign-policy achievements are not always certain to win presidential elections

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 is causing a genuine alarm on Capitol Hill among lawmakers from both parties. The House Foreign Affairs Committee 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 — an essentially stateless and largely Muslim ethnic group that has been singled out by both Rakhine Buddhists and the government of Myanmar.

“As the government of Burma [Myanmar] 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 last Tuesday. What happens in Myanmar has implications for Hillary 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 Mideast 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 Hillary’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 Hillary 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, Hillary will publish a memoir chronicling the highlights of her work as secretary of state for Simon and Schuster. In the meantime, a group founded by Hillary foot soldier David Brock called Correct the Record has employed researchers to examine her State Department tenure and cherry pick its finest moments. Her career is under an equal amount of scrutiny from America Rising, a Republican opposition research firm founded by former Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades and political operative Tim Miller. The firm is reportedly studying up to dispel any embellishments or half-truths that Hillaryland may churn out in the next two years related to her State Department career. Many Republicans, for their part, view the unrest in Myanmar as a counter-narrative to the hyperbole surrounding Hillary’s diplomatic record.

“The United States’ engagement with Myanmar over the past couple of years has helped to aid the country’s progress towards a democratic society, but it is too early for any US official to put Myanmar on their resume of successes,” Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma said. 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 as well as a persistent thorn in the side of US diplomacy.

After Hillary’s first visit to Myanmar in December 2011, the country’s political transformation proceeded swiftly. During her trip, she had promised to establish new US-led development programmes, provide tens of millions in medical aid and consider the exchange of ambassadors. The following March, a mostly free by-election saw Suu Kyi appointed to parliament, while her long beleaguered party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 43 of 46 parliamentary seats. In the light of that victory, Hillary announced that the US would undertake new steps to foster reform in Myanmar, including the opening of a USAID mission and the relaxation of restrictions on US nonprofit activities in the country.

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 and formally lifting press censorship before abolishing the censorship board altogether in 2013. 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.

In September 2012, before a meeting with Thein Sein in New York, Hillary announced that the US government would soon ease a ban on Myanmarese imports “in recognition of the continued progress towards reform”. Now, most sanctions have been eased and the US has already allocated more than $180 million (Dh662 million) in foreign aid to Myanmar.

However, the initial groundbreaking successes have given way to vicious ethnic flare-ups that continue to alarm international observers.

Since Hillary’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 one 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 Rohingyas. These setbacks peaked in 2014, beginning with reports in January that a mob of police and Rakhine villagers had massacred up to 49 Rohingyas, including children. The United Nations 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 Rohingyas 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 in March ousted Doctors Without Borders from the Rakhine state, claiming that the humanitarian organisation was “biased” towards the Rohingyas, a group that Myanmar authorities do not officially recognise. Sentiment against aid workers sympathetic towards Rohingyas reached a head last Thursday, when a mob of more than 1,000 Buddhists attacked the homes and offices of international aid workers in the Rakhine state. To be sure, the overall changes in Myanmar in the last three years have been impressive, even if grave challenges remain. “Things have improved phenomenally,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, citing the country’s more vibrant political system, freer press and gradually thinning ties with China. “But it’s going to take a while,” he added. “We can’t expect [Myanmar] to reach Jeffersonian levels of democracy overnight after 50 years of authoritarian rule.”

But 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,” Representative Steve Chabot, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said in an interview. “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 military, which has a long history of human rights abuses. In February, army officials from Myanmar participated in a US-led military exercise in Thailand called “Cobra Gold,” the largest annual multinational exercise in Asia. For the first time, Myanmar officials were allowed to observe the exercise, which included joint manoeuvres such as amphibious attacks with fighter jets, helicopters and boats. 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 [Myanmarese] military to reform,” Chabot said, otherwise, “a lot of civilians in the country are going to pay a high price for this”. 

But the State Department is pushing for greater engagement. In particular, it wants to invite members of Myanmar’s military to study under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme.

That does not sit well with human rights observers and some members of Congress who worry about how the Myanmarese military would use that education — and about what message that type of American support would send to the country’s government. “The administration does not want to stop anything they are doing despite progress slowing down in Burma [Myanmar],” said a Democratic congressional aide, sceptical of the benefits of military-to-military engagement. In the 1980s, 167 Myanmarese military officers trained under IMET, but that did little to rein-in the military. Recent democratic reforms have proven similarly ineffective at reducing the military’s role in everyday life. This past 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 the 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.”

But the State Department maintains that concerns about military assistance are misplaced. “We wouldn’t be doing any of the standard tactical logistical training that we’ve done in the past,” a senior State Department official said, emphasising that any bilateral training would chiefly focus on human rights, civilian oversight, democratisation and professionalisation. Hiebert of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies contends that this sort of deeper engagement is the only way forward: “You can punish these guys, they’re bad guys, but if you wait until they’ve repented and walked to the river Jordan, that’s just not going to happen.”

What Myanmar’s regression means for Hillary is unclear. Without Myanmar, there is a paucity of foreign-policy achievements to tout — marking a stark contrast with her successor Kerry’s potential diplomatic breakthroughs on Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, as well as his willingness to wager his tenure on a long-shot effort to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. According to reports, Hillary’s memoir will try to promote her leadership role in the Arab Spring, including the ouster of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. 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 Gaddafi’s overthrow.

Others argue that foreign-policy achievements do not win elections, so any harm to Hillary’s 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 [Myanmar]. You’ll be lucky if they know where the [expletive] it is.”

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