President Obama is going to Rangoon. This is a hugely significant visit. The question is, of what?
The U.S. has a controversial past with Burma. Following Ne Win’s coup in 1962, Washington secretly offered support, including with training and arms, as part of its policy to contain communism – in this case Chinese communism. (There is even suspicion of CIA involvement in the coup itself.) This means the U.S. was an ally of the dictator in his military offensives against resistance groups, and his overall suppression of the public. Burma was just one more example of the many countries where America backed dictators, sacrificing its supposed championship of freedom, democracy, and human rights.
This changed following the 1988 massacre. In the face of thousands of casualties, the U.S. had to withdraw its support. But, it did not do an about face and start to work to help free the people. The first U.S. sanctions were not passed until nine years later (and then only because of great activist pressure). Instead, Washington decided to sit on the fence, and see how the situation developed.
It didn’t present its policy this way, of course. Rather, the U.S., under one Administration after another, trumpeted its promotion of democracy, all the while doing nothing material to bring it about. Specifically, Washington backed pacifist Aung San Suu Kyi, including calling for her release during her periods of house arrest. However, unlike the situation with East Turkestan leader Rebiya Kadeer and China, the U.S. did not use its political leverage to actually secure her release. (One wonders why.) Furthermore, the U.S. studiously ignored the ethnic dimension in Burma, failing completely to condemn, much less counter, Ne Win’s massive human rights abuses against the country’s ethnic minorities.
Even though many people from Burma refused to believe it, it was obvious that all the pro-democracy talk out of D.C. was only for show. I and many others lobbied for years, both the State Department and Congress, for real support for the pro-democracy movement. It was never forthcoming. I also made the case that if America was not willing to help Burma on the basis of freedom, democracy, and human rights, it should at least do it to further its own strategic interests.
In dozens of meetings with State Department officials I pointed out that by helping Burma achieve real freedom, America would create a new ally in the region, which together with its neighbor Thailand, already a major ally, would constitute a substantial southwest flank against Chinese expansionism. Moreover, if the U.S. would reposition itself relative to India (the world’s largest democracy), and drop its unwavering support of Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf (under whose watch Al Qaeda, the Taleban, and Pakistan’s ISI intelligence formed their own front through which the American homeland was attacked on 9/11), the U.S. would establish a huge regional block of support. The Asian pivot could not only have been launched, but accomplished, a decade ago.
(Note: The U.S. alliance with Pakistan was a legacy of the Cold War, through which many of the country’s relationships with dictators were established. The Soviet Union allied with India, and America with Pakistan. Also, it is clear that for Burma the lobbying efforts of Unocal, now Chevron, and other American businesses overpowered the initiatives of the pro-democracy movement.)
President Obama apparently agrees with what I have been saying: China is a growing threat and the U.S. needs to have as many friends in Asia as possible. This is the reason behind the Administration’s policy reversal and its decision to engage with Naypyidaw. Unfortunately, though, it also means that unlike with Libya (and one suspects in coming months Syria), the U.S. will not take strong steps to help the people of Burma escape their tyranny. Instead, Obama has decided that this goal, freedom for the people, can be sacrificed. America can renew its alliance with Burma’s dictatorship, in its new civilian disguise, against China. This is yet another deceptive, and pathetic, abandonment of American principles.
To give Obama his due, there may be other reasons for the policy shift, and his upcoming visit. Prior to becoming President, he had minimal foreign policy experience. He was a community organizer and law fellow in Chicago and then a state senator and U.S. senator. He may have believed Thein Sein’s story and that engagement – negotiation – would be sufficient to encourage the military regime to allow democracy. In the face of world history, this view is naive, but it is not without proponents, including from business lobbyists, who prefer the operating conditions inside political dictatorships, and also Democrats, who do not seem to have the requisite courage to confront despots.
On the other hand, Obama may have just tried engagement as an experiment. Now, he has heard so much good news from Hillary Clinton and Derek Mitchell, not to mention Chevron, Pepsi, General Electric and Goldman Sachs, he wants to see it with his own eyes. I can understand this. If I were implementing a policy that had life and death consequences, I would want to evaluate it personally as well.
The problem here is the symbolic element of the trip. He is not just on a fact-checking mission. To the world, the visit will be viewed as an affirmation of the regime, and not only its economic reform. As with Suu Kyi, if Obama doesn’t speak out against the human rights abuses in Burma, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and the civil war against the Kachin (as in 1988, there are thousands of casualties), he too will be giving tacit acceptance to these atrocities.
The best option, which many people have noted, is not to go. His visit is in no way justifiable, given the crimes that are still underway. But, if he is determined to go, the trip must be balanced. He has to meet not only Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, but also ethnic leaders. If he doubts this, he should understand that Suu Kyi does not represent all the people of Burma. Electorally, she is only an MP for a Rangoon township (Kawhmu). For her own symbolism, she is the leader of the Burmans. Her support among the ethnic minorities, who in total may well comprise half the population, is falling, and in any case they have their own leaders.
Moreover, it is essential that he meet the real ethnic leaders, not the regime lapdogs who accepted the pro-military 2008 constitution and participated in the fraudulent 2010 election. He needs to hear about the ethnic cleansing, and war, and detentions, and rape, and chemical weapons, and forced labor, and extortion, and land thefts, not to mention (from Thein Sein) the nuclear program and the regime’s relationship with North Korea.
The basic divide in Burma is between the people who accept the 2008 Constitution, including Suu Kyi and these individuals, and the faithful opposition, who will never accept it and who are therefore effectively barred from politics. The real ethnic leaders are in Thailand and in the conflict zones in Kachin, Shan, Karen, and other states. Obama needs to meet at least one of them, and if he can’t go to the States he should do it in Thailand. Ideally, he should meet representatives from the ethnic alliance, the UNFC, as well as Rohingya leaders.
If President Obama does not meet such individuals, he is favoring the Burmans. If he only meets people who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution, then his trip is a proclamation that both freedom and the abuses committed against the minorities are not important. The President will have extended America’s “only for show” pro-democracy policy, and in the worst way possible. He will be encouraging the people to accept dictatorship.
If this happens, and just as I termed Suu Kyi The Worst Person in Burma, for not using her prestige to pressure the dictatorship to halt its crimes, it would not be too much to say that the United States is The Leading Enemy of Burma, and that the people are merely pawns in a geopolitical game and that their sufferings are irrelevant. With Than Shwe, Thein Sein and Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw, and ringed in by China, Thailand, the U.S., and also Europe, the freedom and democracy aspirations of the people will be well and truly destroyed.
This article appeared in Dictator Watch and is reprinted with permission.
The views expressed are the author’s own.