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What Obama should tell Thein Sein

By Maung Zarni
November 14, 2014

WASHINGTON - United States President Barack Obama will be in Myanmar this week for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. Unlike his state visit in November 2012, Obama is said to be acutely aware that the upcoming stopover cannot be used as a platform to congratulate himself as "Myanmar as a success story" for his foreign policy. 

This is because Obama's Myanmar policy honeymoon has already turned into what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls "a global nightmare". Uncharacteristically, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has recently told the international media that the US government is "overly optimistic" about reforms in her country and challenges anyone to prove her wrong. 

On the home front, Obama's Democrats lost control of the Senate in mid-term elections held on November 4, underscoring Obama's lame duck position. Still, he may be tempted to continue to talk up his administration's supposed successful contributions to Myanmar's "opening" and justify his administration's plan to stay the course of unconditional, if unstrategic, engagement. 

Against this background, Obama and his advisors would do well to take a deep breath, go back to the policy drawing board, and confront the some of the crucial stumbling blocks in Myanmar's much ballyhooed "democratic transition". So far they have instead gone on the defensive about their failing engagement with Myanmar's clique of supposed "reformers", including President and ex-general Thein Sein. 

The emerging reality in Myanmar needs to be appreciated, however inconvenient or unpalatable for Washington: that the generals' top-down reforms are hardly about public welfare or advancement of human rights and civil liberties, but rather about the military and its leaders realigning their strategic interests, personal and institutional, with powerful external players, including the US, European Union and international financial institutions like the World Bank. 

In Obama's lingo, the generals' reforms may best be understood as a military strategy of "re-balancing", as opposed to democratizing Burmese politics and devolving the unitary power structure of the state to give the country's ethnic minorities a fair share of power. 

Not surprisingly, the reforms have spectacularly failed to live up to the media hype and international policy discussions, which were fueled in the first place by the military's psychological warfare program and its proxy "Myanmar Peace Center, as well as their friends and allies in Rangoon's foreign diplomatic circles, including the Norwegian, British and US embassies. 

Reforms, including the freeing of political prisoners, allowing jailed dissidents including Suu Kyi to sit in the military-controlled parliament, media liberalization, economic privatization and the pursuit of ceasefire negotiations with the country's ethnic armed resistance movements, have all been touted by Thein Sein's international supporters as "extraordinary" and "unthinkable only several years ago". Under closer scrutiny, however, they all are now clearly more form than substance. 

Both the quasi-civilian parliament and President Thein Sein's administration have opposed categorically any push for amending the anti-democratic constitution devised by and for the military leadership, witnessed in the 25% parliamentary seats automatically allotted to the Ministry of Defense and the clause that bars Suu Kyi and any able Burmese with foreign spouses or offspring from holding the country's highest office. 

The discourse that Myanmar is now home to one of Southeast Asia's freest media has been punctured by the stories of the army torturing to death Ko Par Gyi, the former-Aung San Suu Kyi-bodyguard-cum-freelance journalist and the jailing of three Burmese journalists who uncovered part of the military's secret weapons program, with alleged involvement of North Korean experts, using British colonial-era 1923 Official Secrets Act. 

Thein Sein's speeches are peppered with buzzwords such as "good governance", "inclusiveness" and "tolerance", but stand in sharp contrast with his government's ranking at the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. 

It was under his presidential watch that the military broke its 14-year-old written ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization in June 2011, thus re-igniting conflict in the country's strategic and resource rich northern and eastern regions bordering on India and China. Nor has he done anything substantive or significant to curb the hate speech and violence directed against the country's estimated 4-5 million Muslims. 

Indeed, Myanmar's reforms are not simply backsliding. Rather, they hold little or no prospect for bringing about genuine and substantive changes, without which neither peace nor prosperity is conceivable. Not in a country with the world's longest political and ethnic strife and pervasive absolute poverty. 

Obama needs to understand that the intransigence of Thein Sein's government - not the economic or personal interests of the ethnic minority leaders and their armed resistance organizations - is damaging the prospects of a nationwide ceasefire on which political solutions and lasting inter-ethnic peace will have to be built. 

Bleak peace prospects Despite the millions of euros and dollars spent in "peace support initiatives" by the likes of Norway, Japan and the European Union, the prospects for peace, stability and development, especially in the border regions of Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Karen, Mon and Wa communities, remains bleak. The absence of any progress in the pursuit of peace by Thein Sein and his deputies is in spite of the United Nations and neighboring China's involvement in the ceasefire negotiations. 

How can there be a nationwide ceasefire, let alone lasting peace, when the most powerful stakeholder - the military's leadership - rejects both equality among the country's diverse ethnic and religious communities and the federalist political vision those groups maintain is the only viable and pragmatic way forward in a country with about two dozen armed ethnic movements? 

Whoever is in the driver's seat and whatever form the new politics and administration may assume, the military remains wedded to its deeply internalized corporate vision of a unitary state where the armed forces and the officer corps doggedly play the simultaneous roles of referee, coach, and player in national politics. 

Besides the military's unitary vision for the state, the ruling generals and top ex-generals possess deep commercial interests in conflict zones which will necessarily be diminished if the state's administrative and political power is devolved to ethnic groups. For instance, many ranking generals and ex-generals have ties to the hundreds of mining companies in the multi-billion dollar jade industry at Hpar-Khant in Kachin State. Ironically, these jade mining companies pay both the Kachin Independence Organization and army, filling both sides' war chests in the process. 

For their part, the ethnic minority armed groups have tired of government ceasefire negotiators who have proven to be unable or disempowered to honor past agreements. For instance, in September this year all sides reached an initial agreement on the federalist nature of a new national polity and amendments to the military's 2008 Constitution as the basis for a nationwide ceasefire deal to be signed by all armed groups, including the central government's Armed Forces. 

A month later, the government's military representatives walked into the negotiation rooms and informed the leaders of the ethnic armed groups that the September deal was off. They then presented new conditions for a national ceasefire, which included keeping the 2008 Constitution intact and subordinating the ethnic minority armed groups under the government's central command as "border guard forces". 

Washington needs to be clear-eyed about the fact that Myanmar's government is still committing widespread crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities, particularly against both Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities such as the Shans and Kachins. 

Last week, Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic released the findings of its three-year study of "war crimes" committed by three serving generals in eastern Myanmar, including a powerful minister in President Thein Sein's government. 

In the last two-and-a-half years, there has been an alarming and sustained rise in violence, death and destruction against Rohingyas in western Myanmar - so much so that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the foremost leading institutions dealing with cases of global mass atrocities, recently issued a clarion call to stop the unfolding genocide in Myanmar. 

At a Harvard University conference held last week on the worsening plight of the Rohingyas, Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen weighed in on the subject by framing Myanmar's persecution of over 1 million Rohingyas as a "slow genocide" unfolding over nearly 40 years, a far more sinister process of state-sponsored intentional destruction of a people than the Holocaust, Rwanda's genocide or the Khmer Rouge's mass atrocities in Cambodia. 

Notwithstanding legal and policy debates over the terminologies of the atrocities, including slow genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or just plain war crimes, it is unmistakable that large scale mass atrocities are being committed against various ethnic and religious minorities by both official government troops and non-state actors such as the country's ultra-racist monks and Nazi-inspired ethnic Rakhine extremists. 

In Washington, a typical American confidence about how to facilitate and support Myanmar's transition from an outright military dictatorship to a more benign entity has given way to policy confusion, uncertainty and defensiveness. As Obama's government ponders why and how the top-down reforms it previously strongly endorsed but now recognize have stalled, it would do well to review the four biggest challenges to engaging Thein Sein's essentially military-led government. 

Needless to say, there is no possibility of the US reversing its current unconditional engagement policy and support for the "reformist" clique in Naypyidaw, who are believed to regularly congregate in Thein Sein's office. 

However, if US policy is to advance its hidden and official policy objectives, including the severing of Myanmar's ties with North Korea, promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights, and economic liberalization, as well as counterbalancing China's influence and role in the country, Washington's engagement needs to be strategically re-calibrated during Obama's visit. 

Tough talking points

First, Obama should make it clear to Thein Sein that as chairman of Myanmar's National Defense and Security Council, the country's de facto ruling body, he must reign in and stop immediately the Armed Forces' continuing war crimes against the Shan and Kachin ethnic minorities. Any claims that Thein Sein, an ex-general and Prime Minister under the former ruling junta, does not control the military's Central Command should be diplomatically refuted as disingenuous. 

Second, the US should put a moratorium on any and all military-to-military engagements between the Pentagon and the Myanmar state security sector, including workshops and training programs in human rights and civil-military relations. 

The Pentagon, with its own atrocious record of human-rights violations in the name of the "global war on terror" is neither the most obvious choice for the task nor best equipped for the job. Leave that to some other credible organizations such as Asian Human Rights Commission, Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic or the Global Minorities Alliance. 

Third, the Obama Administration, represented US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize winning expert on genocides and the author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, should entertain the idea of punitive measures against Myanmar's genocidaires, including against top-ranking government officials as well as communal Rakhine leaders. 

If Washington is not prepared to push for UN Security Council authorization for the referral of Myanmar's genocidal military leaders and ex-leaders, including the "reformist" Thein Sein, it should at the least call for the revision of the racist 1982 Citizenship Act, which serves the legal justification for Rohingya persecution. 

It should also consider curbing its present ambassador in Rangoon, Derek Mitchell, who reliable sources say is pressuring Rohingya leaders and community elders to accept Thein Sein government's official erasure of the former's voluntary ethnic identity and adopt the government-imposed label "Bengali" - a term that effectively indicates that Rohingyas do not belong in Myanmar. 

In a move widely popular with the public, the US Treasury recently blacklisted ex-Brigadier Aung Thaung, chair of the Finance Committee for the military's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and a very powerful confidante of the now officially retired despot Senior General Than Shwe, on the grounds he has been directly involved in recent violent campaigns against Myanmar's Muslims. The Obama Administration should also propose and lead similar punitive moves using established global justice mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court or Responsibility to Protect (R2P). 

Fourth and finally, as a point of departure from its current policy of unwavering support for Thein Sein's government (and its "less-corrupt" super-ministers and "cleaner" cronies), Washington needs to realign its long-term strategic interests, both commercial and strategic, with those of the public, including farmers, laborers, ethnic and religious minorities and genuine - as opposed to proxy - opposition parties. 

The US's short-sighted preference for supporting elite-led quasi-transitional processes in the Middle East and former Soviet Union has already boomeranged. The sustained popularity of Vladimir Putin in Russia and the widespread and palpable hatred of the US on the Arab Street spring to mind. Washington should recognize that Myanmar's persecuted and oppressed ethnic and religious minorities - not only the Rohingyas but also the Kachin, Mon, Shan, Karen and others - would like to see a more decisively pro-democratic and pro-human rights US policy and practice in Myanmar. 

The country's various oppressed constituencies are intensely resentful of both meek, mild and ineffectual UN officials and China's narrow interests and slanted policies in favor of their common oppressor in Naypyidaw. They still hold out hope that the US's involvement and pressure on the country's current military leaders will eventually bring genuine democratic reforms and an end to decades of internal conflict. For that to happen, Obama must change his previous tact of unconditional engagement, beginning with a strong message to Naypyidaw that current trends and practices will be met with renewed punitive measures. 

Maung Zarni is a lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author with Alice Cowley of The Slow Burning Genocide of Myanmar's Rohingya in the Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal (University of Washington Law School, Spring 2014).

This analysis article was originally published on Asia Times.

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