President Obama is choosing an odd time to make history as the first US president to visit Burma. Ethnic violence continues to devastate Rakhine State in western Burma, conflict rages in northern Kachin State, and military officials responsible for some of the worst violence in the country continue to thrive in a climate of impunity. Obama advisor Samantha Power noted that his administration is “clear-eyed about the challenges Burma faces.” The president’s trip there later this month gives him the chance to prove her right.
The trip to Burma provides President Obama with a crucial opportunity to press its government to end the widespread violence against ethnic minorities, increase humanitarian access to conflict zones, reform its military, release remaining political prisoners, and establish accountability mechanisms for perpetrators of heinous crimes. This is not the time to merely announce more rewards for reformists in Burma’s government; instead, he needs to press for these necessary advances that will benefit all people of Burma.
Actions speak louder than words: If the US government is truly serious about ongoing human rights violations in Burma, then President Obama should visit displaced civilians in Myitkyina, Kachin State, and around Sittwe in Rakine State in border areas. He could even observe the progress made and difficulties still faced in ceasefire talks in Karen State. Far too many international delegations limit their trips to Rangoon at the cost of marginalizing the problems that are ongoing in ethnic states and simplifying the politics of Burma. It is time for the US to take the lead in addressing problems in ethnic areas in Burma.
The Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Burma’s leaders has not yielded the kind of rewards the people of Burma deserve. Nearly a year after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country, human rights violations persist and structural problems, including widespread disregard for the rule of law, remain.
For decades, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders, and political opposition leaders have made significant sacrifices to move Burma in the direction of reform. The people of Burma are watching: If President Obama is truly “clear-eyed” about the ongoing problems in Burma, he should make sure that he supports their efforts and not only those of the government.