Human Rights Concerns Loom Large as Obama Lands in Myanmar

Barack Obama is in Myanmar today as part of his “Asia pivot” tour following the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing. Two years after his 2012 visit – the first by a sitting American president – there are unfulfilled promises in Burma’s transition to democracy. While human rights groups urge Obama to ask tough questions of Burmese leader Thein Sein, it is unlikely that any talk will lead to significant progress.

Not that long ago Burma was lauded for its efforts to transition to democracy after more than 40 years of military rule. A new constitution was adopted in 2008 and elections held in 2010; while signs of potential progress, both were marred with errors and reserved a significant amount of power for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Numerous reforms have been announced since but most have stalled. Instead, Burma remains in international headlines due to ongoing human rights abuses.

Chief among these is the treatment of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State. A small spate of violence between local Buddhists and Rohingya in 2012 quickly spread, ultimately leading to wide scale attacks against the Rohingya and massive displacement. The government soon kicked out aid agencies attempting to assist Rohingya victims, leaving thousands in squalid conditions with nowhere else to go. Long discriminated against by the state, the systematic nature of the attacks – and reports of the complicity of state security forces – has led numerous organizations to refer to the violence as ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Yet despite international condemnation, the Burmese government refuses to do much to fix the situation. On several occasions, government actions have exacerbated tensions, as seen with the recent national census held earlier this year that attempted to formally strip the Rohingya of ethnic identity and reaffirm the government’s stance that they are not really Burmese. It is the latest sign that even on the road to democracy, Burma is still stuck in old habits.

While the Rohingya have gained the most international attention their plight is far from the only human rights issue plaguing Burma. Military-backed and rebel militias terrorize citizens in Kachin state – a key region in the country’s illegal heroin trade – through arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions, torture and looting. The negotiation of ceasefires with several rebel groups in Karen state have failed to resolve longstanding displacement and refugee issues as the government continues to militarize the resource-rich area.

Recently news surfaced that the body of a prominent freelance journalist last seen in military custody was found, shot five times and badly mutilated before being hastily buried. The announcement of Aung Kyaw Naing’s death and revelation of his burial site is actually considered the human rights concession made for Obama’s trip; the government has sentenced 10 other journalists to prison recently but has made no indications it is considering releasing or pardoning them soon.

Thus despite the hope and change that greeted Obama’s first trip to Burma, this year the expectations are far more muted. Although still nominally on a path towards a more open democracy, the last two years have demonstrated that much more will be needed to make those pledges a reality. Obama’s trip can serve as a reminder of promises made and the potential economic rewards in fulfilling them, but ultimately it will be up the Burmese government – and the military that still dominates it – to break with old habits and build a country that respects all of Burma’s people.