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Pushing Burma toward inclusiveness

By Editorial Board
November 3, 2014

IN HIS speech at West Point in May, President Obama basked in the promise that democracy was moving ahead in Burma, or Myanmar, “which only a few years ago was an intractable dictatorship and hostile to the United States.” Thanks to the courage of Burma’s people and to the exercise of U.S. leadership, he declared, “we have seen political reforms opening a once-closed society.” He added that “if Burma succeeds we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.” 

It is not that easy. The administration was so eager to declare victory and end sanctions on Burma’s economy that U.S. leverage now is more limited than it should be. But when he goes to Burma for his second visit as president, to attend a regional summit on Nov. 12, Mr. Obama must acknowledge the nation’s leadership and military are sliding backward. Despite U.S. efforts to accentuate the positive, there have been serious setbacks for ethnic tolerance, free expression and political plurality. 

The president may have sensed this, and he made important phone calls on Oct. 31 to President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. According to the White House, he emphasized the importance of an “inclusive and credible process” toward landmark elections next year. A vital step in this process is to allow the constitutional changes that would give Aung San Suu Kyi a place on the ballot. The election is the first that her National League for Democracy has contested since the 1990 vote was ignored by the military. The party boycotted the 2010 vote, when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

Thein Sein needs to get the message. He will have to be much more forthcoming than the empty gesture offered Friday, when he convened a roundtable meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and others. Afterward, she lamented that it was stage-managed so that remarks were brief, adding that the meeting was not what she had hoped for.

The media in Burma have been freer in the past two years, but the recent death of journalist Aung Kyaw Naing while in military custody is another alarming sign amid frequent complaints from journalists of harassment and intimidation. The army claimed the journalist was a “communications captain” for an armed group — which the group denied — and that he was killed while trying to escape military custody. These claims are dubious. Perhaps it is difficult for military leaders to understand the functioning — and criticism — that comes with a free press, but it will be much more difficult to establish lasting change if a journalist can be killed with impunity. A full and impartial investigation is needed.

A major threat to the promise of a free and democratic Burma is the continued ethnic violence, and in particular the government’s ill-considered plan for the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims, which would further isolate them. Mr. Obama ought to make it clear to Burma’s president that being inclusive is the only way to begin to reach that “success” he described at West Point.

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