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John Kerry urged to take harder line on rights issues in Myanmar

Muzafar Jalil, who lives in Nashua, is a member of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that faces increased persecution by Buddhist extremists. (Photo: JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF)

By Jessica Meyers
August 7, 2014

Muzafar Jalil connects to his Burmese past through blurry photos of a son he never saw grow up and a granddaughter he may never meet. He calls to bridge the distance — and to ensure they’re still alive.

The 63-year-old Nashua resident imagined a reunion with his family when Myanmar embarked on democratic reforms in 2011 and opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in half a century.

Jalil, since then, has all but abandoned that hope.

He and his family are among the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the Southeast Asian nation that faces increased persecution by Buddhist extremists. The United Nations estimates more than 86,000 Rohingya have fled the country since violent attacks began two years ago, and about 140,000 remain trapped in squalid internment camps. The situation has clouded the country’s democratic efforts, spurred comparisons to genocide, and turned into a flash point ahead of a visit this weekend by Secretary of State John Kerry.

The debate pits advocates who demand a stronger response to human rights concerns -- including Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester -- against analysts who urge a more delicate dance of diplomacy.

“The administration can do more on this issue,” McGovern said. “As we tie a nice bow on what we call a success story, we need to make sure we aren’t a cheap date when it comes to human rights.”

The congressman helped spearhead a congressional letter to Kerry last week that warned conditions in Burma had taken “a sharp turn for the worse” and urged more restrictive measures, such as targeted sanctions. More than 70 lawmakers signed on, including all House members from Massachusetts. The Worcester congressman pushed a separate resolution through the House in May that highlighted the Rohingya’s plight, a move he labeled a “friendly reminder” for the White House.

Florida Republican Marco Rubio, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that reviews relations with Myanmar, asked Kerry on Thursday to confront issues thwarting its democratic progress. Rubio, in a letter co-written by Republican Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois, called the government’s failure to stop the violence “unacceptable” and instructed him to meet with just as many people outside leadership.

Kerry heads to Myanmar for the first time this Saturday to attend regional meetings with his Southeast Asian counterparts. He intends to focus on tensions over the South China Sea but also will sit down with senior Burmese officials in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s shiny new capital. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, made diplomatic relations with the country a significant goal of her tenure and visited it on several occasions.

Administration officials have offered broad critiques of anti-Muslim discrimination, even if they have avoided harsh rebuke.

“I can anticipate that Secretary Kerry will press Burma’s leaders as he and the president have done, to protect and to respect the rights of all the people in the country, and to put in place greater safeguards for their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters this week.

But it remains unclear just how far Kerry will go in his criticism toward a country often framed as one of the administration’s few foreign policy successes.

“We need to be cautious about wanting to speed it up and going out and making very strong and aggressive statements,’’ said Joseph Liow, Southeast Asia studies chair at The Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “Of course it satisfies domestic audiences in the U.S. and lawmakers would be happy. But beyond political points for making such statements, how does that help the problem we are trying to shed light on?”

Many of the country’s 1.3 million Rohingya now live in makeshift huts on the poor western coast, far from the first indoor shopping malls and luxury condominiums. The Burmese government, which refers to Rohingya as “Bengalis,” classifies the ethnic minority as illegal immigrants and refuses to grant them citizenship

“If Kerry is going to visit, then he needs to address the fact that the plight of the Rohingya has not gotten better,” said Daniel Sullivan, the policy director for United to End Genocide, a Washington-based organized dedicated to ending mass atrocities. “It’s gotten worse.”

The Myanmar Embassy did not respond to requests for comment. But Burmese officials have pointed to tremendous changes, such as press freedoms and democratic elections.

Beginning around 2010, military leaders from one of the world’s most repressive regimes started to distance themselves from China and North Korea. Generals freed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, released hundreds of political prisoners and welcomed investment from Western businesses.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived as the first senior U.S. official in 50 years to visit the country -- strategically positioned between China and India. President Obama became the first sitting president to step onto Myanmar’s soil. Photos of his 2012 visit still hang above stalls selling Buddha relics and wooden boxes.

But success has started to fray.

A parliamentary committee in June voted against a change in the constitution that would have allowed Suu Kyi to run for office in next year’s pivotal elections. The government is considering a law that would require permission from authorities to change religions.

The State Department has not remained silent. In an international religious freedom report released last week, officials acknowledged that local government officials “reportedly participated in anti-Muslim discrimination and failed to stop violence” in the western part of the country. And they noted local officials were slow to respond to ethnic violence elsewhere. Obama also has spoken with Burmese President Thein Seincq about anti-Muslim tensions.

Change can’t come soon enough for Jalil, who has not returned to Myanmar since he fled three decades ago. Burma Task Force USA, an organization set up last year to assist Burmese Muslims, counts about 600 Rohingya in the U.S. Jalil, along with 20 other Rohingya families, now calls Nashua his home.

My family “is in homes but they cannot go even to the market,” he said, because they fear attacks. “Like an open prison.”

Jalil considers Kerry’s visit a small window of hope. “If the situation change,” he said, “then maybe I can go to see them.”

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