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Obama is going soft on Myanmar’s military bosses

President Obama shook hands with Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein. (Photo: Getty Image)

By Alan Berger
Boston Globe
November 21, 2014

In the silences as well as the speeches made during President Obama’s recent visit to Myanmar, attentive observers could glimpse a dramatic illustration of the tension between morality and amoral realism in the execution of US foreign policy.

Reading from one script, Obama assured the people of Myanmar that he understood “the process of reform is in no way complete or irreversible.’’ This was his tactful way of saying America has not been duped by Myanmar’s generals and their cronies who have disguised the perpetuation of their power under a patina of democratic pretenses. Obama was hinting to the many victims of Myanmar’s brass that Washington could still halt its pursuit of diplomatic, economic, and military engagement with the resource-rich nation along China’s southern border.

But no sooner had the US president issued his carefully calibrated message than a caucus of military members of Myanmar’s parliament voted to retain articles of a Constitution that guarantees the army a blocking quarter of the seats in that body and prohibits Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president in 2015 because her children hold foreign (British) citizenship. In essence, the military MPs were calling Obama’s bluff.

They know that America’s foreign policy elites are eager to horn in on China’s backyard, that US corporations hanker to extract Myanmar’s bounteous natural resources and peddle their fried chicken and gluten-free lattes to the consumers of Myanmar. Accordingly, Obama made no mention of a study by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic describing war crimes attributed to three serving generals. Nor did he invoke a call from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to stop an unfolding genocide in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims.

To his credit, Obama did denounce in public the vicious persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. He properly called for humanitarian assistance to be provided to Rohingya families that have been herded into barren concentration camps, and for the Rohingya to be granted full citizenship rights. Not only did Obama’s defense of basic human rights amount to an implicit denunciation of the ruling generals and of a racist campaign against the Rohingya incited by demagogic Buddhist monks; the president’s appeal for tolerance also made for a desolating contrast with Suu Kyi’s politic silence on the plight of the Rohingya.

But Obama’s forthright allusion to the crimes against humanity committed in the campaign against Myanmar’s Muslims amounts to words substituting for action.

Obama is certainly not alone among American political leaders suddenly going soft on Myanmar’s military bosses. Senate majority leader Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the outgoing Democratic Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein, both longtime supporters of sanctions on the generals, have fallen silent, in apparent fealty to US companies eager to do business in Myanmar. Nevertheless, the continuing crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar’s military in its wars against the Karen, Shan, Kachin, and other minorities cry out not only for condemnation but also for sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

In the case of Myanmar today, a policy grounded in the protection of human rights also promises to suit the long-term, international interests of the US and its citizens.

Alan Berger is a retired Globe editorial writer.

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