Barack Obama visited Rangoon on 19 November for six hours and received a rapturous welcome from many Burmese. In the first visit to the country by a standing US president, the short trip took on a historic dimension. However, it’s very difficult not to read the visit as an endorsement of the Burmese government and its transition to a “disciplined democracy”.
Many activists and Burma observers have criticised Obama’s trip for being too premature. They have a strong point. Those in power belonged to the same military junta that oppressed the Burmese people for decades. The military still wields considerable power in the country with a constitution tailored by the army. Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars, while The Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army) wages a vicious war against the Kachin Indepedence Army in the north.
The US has always claimed to be concerned about the Burmese people’s welfare, but the rapprochement between the US and Burma seems to be more fueled by the US government’s strategic geopolitical concerns than it does for the promotion of human rights as the US engages with Burma to counter China’s influence in the region.
Perhaps to assuage these critical voices, Mr. Obama did not visit Naypyidaw, the new capital built by the generals in 2005. Rather, he chose to speak at the University of Rangoon – a former hotbed for activism since the colonial era, where he delievered a speech full of praise for the activists that have fought for democracy in Burma.
In his landmark speech, Mr. Obama did not avoid any of the hot issues afflicting Burma at the present moment, which included the recent violence in Arakan state between the Buddhist Arakanese majority and the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority. Two waves of violence in June and in late October have left hundreds dead and thousands displaced, an overwhelming majority of those affected being Muslims. The Rohingyas are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, a view that Aung San Suu Kyi apparently shares. The opposition leader said during her trip in India this month that part of the problem is the “porous border” with Bangladesh.
Mr. Obama gave a fine speech overall in which he noted the “dignity” of the Rohingyas and advocated “unity in diversity” in Burma – a country where several ethnic groups and religions uneasily coexist. But Obama failed when he did not mention the root causes behind the crisis in Arakan state and the responsibility that the government bears for inciting the violence and for failing to act forcefully to stop it. However, he did welcome “the government’s commitment to address the issues of injustice and accountability, and humanitarian access and citizenship.” But the hands of the government are not as clean as Obama’s speech would lead us to believe.
In his speech, he implicitly endorsed the common narrative that claims that the unrest was a spontaneous explosion of “sectarian violence” between Arakanese and Rohingyas. The government and several media outlets also espouse this view. But this narrative is highly problematic and collapses when confronted with the strong evidence concerning the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Arakan state, which could slide into outright genocide if stronger action is not taken.
[pullquote] “The US seems to be oblivious to some of the country’s worst human rights” [/pullquote]
For decades, the regime has been fostering ethno-racial hatred against Rohingya Muslims to deflect the majority’s attention away from the myriad political and economic problems plaguing the Burmese population and to pit the staunchly nationalistic Arakanese against an enemy other than the central government.
General Ne Win’s regime rendered the Rohingya stateless in 1982, when the government passed a law that denied the group citizenship by alleging that they were not one of the 135 ethnic groups that lived in Burma before the first Anglo-Burmese war of 1824. This is a hotly contested point among scholars, but there are references as early as 1820 to the “Rooinga” as the “Mahommedans who have been long settled” in Arakan.
President Thein Sein did little to quell the sentiment against the Rohingyas when he first declared that the only possible solution would be to keep them in camps managed by the UNHCR before resettling the group to third countries. Faced with widespread criticism from abroad that could taint his image as a reformer, Mr. Thein Sein has since softened his stance and declared his intention to revise the 1982 citizenship law. This is the commitment that Mr. Obama mentioned in his speech, but so far Mr. Thein Sein’s actions have not matched his mildly conciliatory words.
The Burmese government has allowed anti-Rohingya demonstrations lead by Buddhist monks to take place in cities like Mandalay and even yielded to popular pressure by preventing the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to open an office in Arakan state. This stands in stark contrast with the treatment dispensed to the activists who organised demonstrations to call for an end of the war in Kachin state during the summer, where the protests were dissolved and the organisers arrested.
There is ample evidence that the security forces took sides with the Arakanese mobs and shot at Rohingya civilians in June and October, when the attacks were extended to the Kaman, a Muslim minority officially recognised as one of Burma’s ethnic groups. Many Muslim refugees I interviewed recently in Arakan spoke of groups of Arakanese extremists organising the violence in October, something confirmed in a thorough investigation carried out by Reuters. Once again, the government failed to prosecute those responsible of inciting or organising the violence, and there are suspicions that some government forces may have helped incite the riots.
The government has segregated the communities, ostensibly with the purpose of preventing further bloodshed from breaking out. In reality, the Rohingya communities are being held in ghetto-like quarters while the Buddhists enjoy full freedom of movement. The government does not provide enough food or medical attention to the Muslims, while international agencies and NGOs face considerable hostility from the Buddhist population for aiding the Rohingyas. Diseases like diarrhea and tuberculosis are rife, and there are many cases of severe malnutrition.
Obama did well in defending the dignity of the Rohingya during his speech and his calls for a more inclusive society were absolutely spot on. But he did a small favor to the cause he was defending when he implicitly absolved the government, as many other governments have done. In its haste to find an ally in the Burmese government, the US seems to be oblivious to some of the country’s worst human rights violations and is rewarding the Burmese government more for its words than for its actions. This position risks fostering a highly dangerous sense of impunity among the leaders of Burma, while the country’s most vulnerable groups are still likely to suffer from continued abuse.
-Carlos Sardiña Galache is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.