Obama’s Visit to Burma And What it Means for Democracy in The Region

20 November 2012

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By Anwar Ibrahim

As one of his first official acts overseas upon his re-election to office, President Obama’s upcoming visit to Burma will indeed be a historic moment and will have major implications for the future of freedom and democracy not just for Burma but for the region.

Is the visit intended to signify Washington’s recognition that Burma has made some significant progress towards freedom and democracy? While this question may not be definitively answered yet, there is no doubt that some reforms have been put in place. Among them are the relaxation on curbs to press freedom, allowing workers to form unions, and the legitimization of opposition political parties including most significantly the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi. While these changes are palpable steps in the direction of freedom and democracy, it needs to be stressed that issues of human rights remain far from resolved. So, if Obama’s upcoming visit is meant to be an endorsement of the reforms carried out, then it must perforce be a very conditional endorsement. The progress made so far may be encouraging but the laundry list for reforms remains long and freedom and democracy advocates as well as other civil society groups in the region are watching this closely.

The ethnic conflicts that have plagued this nation and the response by the Burmese government in dealing with them remain troublesome. The renewed outbreak of violence recently in Rakhine State which has seen the slaughter of hundreds of the stateless Rohingya Muslims and the destruction of entire settlements is a matter of grave concern. There have been reports that security forces were complicit in the killing or at least did nothing to stop it. Attempts to rationalize the massacres as inevitable consequences of ethnic strife cannot absolve the Burmese government from blame. In this regard, Washington has remained somewhat muted in response having failed to voice in the strongest terms its condemnation of these acts of murder and mayhem and to take to task the Burmese authorities for their failure to protect the minority Rohingya population. This is an ethnic community that has been rendered stateless since 1948, and constantly under attack from both sides and has been culturally and economically marginalized for decades. A state visit by President Obama under the circumstance without putting the Rohingya problem on the table would be interpreted as Washington soft-pedaling on such a crucial issue.

As we have said before, America must not repeat the errors of the past in consorting with dictators and autocrats just so it may reap the benefits of realpolitik. It is true that under Obama, American foreign policy has improved considerably not the least of which is the departure from the glaring policy of selective ambivalence prevalent under President Bush. Nevertheless, vestigial linkage remains of such a policy as became apparent when the Arab spring unfolded. Having made that historic Cairo speech and the promises held out for the Muslim world, there were great expectations generated for freedom and democracy. But when the Arab spring took hold particularly in Egypt, Washington failed to seize the moment, constrained no doubt by its long standing ties with Mubarak. You can’t drop your long time friends like a hot potato at the first sign of trouble. Similar stances of self-restraint are being seen in respect of certain other countries in the Middle East whose remaining autocrats are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the status quo using every means to brutally stamp out any manifestation of a renewed spring by their people.

In this regard, we would once again remind President Obama that it is still not too late to make good the pledges made when he first came to office particularly to the Muslim world. If one bothers to listen, the calls for freedom, democracy and justice reverberate not only in the Middle East but very much so in Southeast Asia as well. In this region, there are Muslim nations whose people too aspire for true freedom and democracy though any mention of an Arab spring will provoke brutal reprisals of the powers that be. For example, street demonstrations for clean and fair elections are considered treasonous and the authorities have no qualms in meting out summary punishment by tear gassing, water bombing and beating unarmed participants including women and children.

As for Burma, it is of paramount importance that the State Department impresses upon the government that there can be no real reform as long as the rights of the Rohingyas as well as other ethnic minorities continue to be violated with impunity. The lessons of the Arab Spring tell us that inaction when action is called will land us on the wrong side of history. Having been rendered stateless and economically marginalized for so long, the granting of citizenship and full rights to the Rohingyas is a condition precedent to lasting peace and reconciliation. Similarly, the persecution of the Shan people in Shan State and Kachin State must not be allowed to continue. Democracy and freedom cannot thrive while ethnic minority groups remain oppressed and dispossessed.

On other fronts, the Obama administration needs to do more to nurture a vibrant civil society and an effective opposition to keep in check the excesses of the powers that be.

The high powered dialogue on human rights held last month with the Burmese Government is of paramount importance as a first step in that direction. However, to be effective it should not be a mere charade of civil exchanges, but a no-holds barred discourse where the areas of contention are frankly and decisively discussed. In any event, dialogues on issues such as rule of law, political reform, and justice can have little import when those affected are not properly represented. In this regard, there is no overstating the role of Aung San Suu Kyi as the chair of the legislative committee on the rule of law. As an icon for the human rights cause, she has to send a strong message against the killing of innocent women and children in the Rohingya massacre. Having championed her cause for democracy and consistently pushing for her freedom ever since her house arrest, we do not regard it as a matter of moral self-righteousness to call on her to now play a more prominent role in resolving the Rohingya problem. Positioned as she is now and with an outstanding track record in the fight for human rights, we believe Aung San Suu Kyi is the best person to lead this initiative.

It is true that changes cannot occur overnight especially for a country that has been under military dictatorship for five decades. The fact that the State Department was able to convey the concerns of the minority groups, the voices of civil society and parties concerned for the fight for human rights, speaks volumes for its role in this continued strategy of constructive engagement and involvement. Furthermore, the release of more than 700 political prisoners is significant even though full freedom is still being denied as many continue to labour under travel restrictions and curbs on participating in the political process.

Even as Rome was not built in a day, the foundation of rule of law must be built without a day’s delay. Without rule of law, reforms may crumble overnight in Burma as the executive brow beats the judiciary into submission, a state of affairs with which we are not unfamiliar. Parliamentary reforms must proceed in tandem with legal and judicial transformation. The repealing of outdated and restrictive laws will be an exercise in futility if these laws are supplanted by new ones equally draconian and oppressive, as is the case with certain sham democracies in Southeast Asia.

It is reassuring that the State Department has recognized that serious human rights abuses against civilians continue and the condition of hundreds of thousands of refugees has reached crisis point.

While we remain firm in applauding the American people in making the right decision by re-electing a man of principle and integrity, a leader reflective of the nation’s cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, and no doubt capable of taking America to the next level at home and abroad, we urge President Obama to do the right thing when he meets with the leaders of Burma. Yes, it’s true that a nation’s reforms will succeed only if the people themselves put in their best efforts and there is no gainsaying that obstacles and challenges abound along Burma’s road to freedom and democracy.

20 November 2012, Kuala Lumpur

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