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US Think Tank Faults Burma on Arakan Response

Burmese President Thein Sein, right, and US President Barack Obama share the stage in Bali on Nov. 19, 2011. Relations between the two countries have improved rapidly since this first meeting between the two leaders. (Photo: Reuters)

By Matthew Pennington
October 24, 2014

WASHINGTON — An influential Washington think tank is criticizing Burma’s government for presiding over a “humanitarian catastrophe” in western Arakan State and doing little to track down perpetrators of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence around the country.

Those criticisms come in a very mixed assessment by the Center for Strategic and International Studies of the situation in Burma, three years after it began a historic transition to democracy from decades of oppressive and ruinous military rule.

The centrist think tank, which has the ear of the Obama administration, visited Burma in August and issued its report on Wednesday. President Barack Obama, who counts US support of the Southeast Asian nation’s reforms as a foreign policy success, will make his second visit to Burma in two years when it hosts a summit of regional leaders in November.

The report points to some hopeful signs in Burma, which is gearing up for elections in late 2015. It cites prospects for a nationwide cease-fire in long-running ethnic conflicts, improvements in a woeful health care system and economic reforms that have spurred rapid growth.

But the report also says power is deeply skewed in favor of the military, and that decision-making on key political reforms has stalled. It says that likely reflects a struggle between “reformists” allied to President Thein Sein — the former general who has overseen the shift to democracy — and establishment interests who fear losing privileges through more change.

“It is not yet clear that the military’s overwhelming dominance will diminish significantly as the current government approaches the end of its formal tenure in April 2016,” the think tank says.

The report says massive human suffering continues in Arakan, where 140,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have been rounded up into barbed-wire-enclosed camps after sectarian violence erupted in mid-2012 with majority Buddhists. It said for months the Burmese government has “abdicated its leadership responsibilities” as worsening violence drove international humanitarian groups out.

The government’s action plan to address the situation in Arakan State — criticized by human rights groups as discriminatory — puts forward ideas for peaceful coexistence, citizenship and resettlement, but it remains to be seen if the government can defuse the crisis, the report says.

In the past three years, the United States has led the charge as Western nations have re-engaged with Burma and rolled back sanctions, and Wednesday’s report advocates continued American engagement despite congressional concerns over Burma’s “backsliding” on reforms.

The report calls for the US to double health aid to Burma, including in the fight against drug-resistant malaria, and to sustain limited US engagement with the military. It says however, those ties shouldn’t be expanded before it is clear the military hasn’t intervened in the elections.

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