Visit by Burmese Leader Offers Key Opportunity to Press for Human Rights Improvements

Burmese President Thein Sein is scheduled to meet with President Obama today, marking the first visit to the United States by a Burmese head of state in 47 years. Since that visit in 1966, the people of Burma have endured governmental mismanagement, brutal military rule, and serious human rights violations. Burma became a pariah state, synonymous with its infamous imprisonment of political activists and militarized attacks on civilians.

In the past several years, Burma seemed to have been emerging from its shadowy past. The government released political prisoners, allowed greater press and media freedoms, and granted increased political participation on the part of opposition groups. These reforms, seemingly unrealistic just a few years earlier, have encouraged western countries to ease their stiff sanctions and begin a new era of engagement.

The strategy of the Obama administration was to encourage more sustainable reforms by matching action for action: removing sanctions or other barriers in response to improvements. While this may seem like a wise method of promoting further reform, the strategy included few responses to persistent problems in Burma, including rampant impunity for human rights violators, continued attacks on civilians, and extreme sectarian violence.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) recently documented one example of brutal violence by investigating the scene of a massacre in Meiktila, a town in central Burma. In a report released today, PHR outlines how a mob of civilians attacked a Muslim religious school, killing 20 children and four teachers. The violence was tolerated by police officers, who stood by and sometimes participated in the attacks. The killings in Meiktila are but one stark example of the systemic problems that continue to plague Burma despite other recent improvements.  

Today’s visit comes at a key time in Burma’s transition to democracy – a time when its government must decide whether to grapple with the abuses of the past and bring an end to a culture of militarization and impunity. The landmark meeting provides President Obama with a key opportunity to encourage President Sein to do just that.

The Burmese government has a wish list of items from the United States, including, most likely, a wide open door to US investment in Burma, military assistance, and the removal of additional names from the Specially Designated Nationals list, which names individuals who cannot engage with US investors. President Obama should only relinquish these benefits in return for substantive progress on key human rights issues. Economic boons should only be rewarded to the Burmese government when it establishes effective accountability mechanisms to address human rights violations, allows humanitarian aid workers unfettered access to those in need, and institutionalizes protections for ethnic minority groups. These advances will require long-term dedication on the part of the Burmese government – and if President Sein returns to Burma with economic assistance without having made substantive progress on these issues, the likelihood of progress without external pressure is small.

There are a few possible outcomes of today’s meeting. President Obama could grant Burma’s leader his wish list without seeing human rights improvements in return. That would send a strong signal that the US will turn a blind eye to human rights violations in the name of economic assistance. There is also a possibility that President Obama will use this opportunity to demand further reforms in Burma before giving additional assistance. This second scenario would involve a sober realization of the reforms yet to be implemented in Burma, and help lay the foundation for a sustainable peace in Burma.

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