Why Obama’s visit to Myanmar could prove tricky

Nov 19, 2012

by B Raman

On his first foreign visit after being re-elected, President Barack Obama is in Myanmar for a few hours on Monday after visiting Cambodia (to attend the East summit) and Thailand.

While he is in Myanmar, Obama will  hold talks with President Thein Sein in Yangon, not in Nyapyidaw, the capital. He will be accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,  for whom this is the second visit to Myanmar.

The visit has been projected in warm terms by both the US and Myanmar. A spokesman for President Thein Sein said: “His visit is warmly welcomed. It will strengthen the resolve of Thein Sein to move forward with reforms. Obama’s visit shows concrete support for the democratisation process of President U Thein Sein, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Members of Parliament and the Myanmar people. President Thein Sein fully believes that the trip of President Obama will push the momentum of the process of democratic reform.”

The visit underlines the US confidence in the stability of the Government of President Thein Sein and its belief that there is no opposition from within the senior levels of the Myanmar Armed Forces to the policy of political and economic reforms and opening-up to the West undertaken by Thein Sein and his co-operation with Suu Kyi.

US President Barack Obama is welcomed as he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive at the Yangon International Airport in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday. Carolyn Kaster/AP

While there has been no comment so far from the Chinese Foreign Office, Qin Guangrong, Secretary of the Communist Party of China in Yunnan, who attended the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China  in Beijing, said that China saw no threat to its interests from Obama’s visit. He added: “We understand and support the wish of the Myanmar authorities wanting to open up and become part of the world.”

Obama’s visit comes less than a month after a new spell of violence between the native Buddhists of the Rakhine (Arakan) State and the Rohingya Muslims, who are portrayed by Myanmar authorities as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not entitled to full citizenship rights.

The violence, which led to over 80 fatalities and added to the number of internally displaced persons living in camps, was triggered by the opposition of the Buddhists to a proposal to permit the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to open a permanent office in Yangon to monitor the human rights of the Rohingya Muslims and the distribution of humanitarian relief to the internally displaced refugees from both the communities living in camps in the Rakhine State.

The violence has since subsided, but a Commission appointed by the Government of President Thein Sein to enquire into an earlier spell of deadly violence in June has not been able to make much progress in its enquiry due to non-cooperation from the Buddhists.

US officials dealing with the visit have maintained a discreet silence on the recent violence in the Rakhine State and sought to project the visit as meant to encourage the Thein Sein Government to keep moving on the democratic path. However, there will be expectations from the Muslims of the ASEAN region, who nurse feelings of solidarity with the Rohingya Muslims, that Obama will exercise pressure on President Thein Sein as well as Suu Kyi to pay attention to the human rights of the Rohingya Muslims and grant them full citizenship rights.

The Buddhists are watching the visit with apprehension that President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi may soften their opposition to the grant of citizenship rights to the Rohingya Muslims under pressure from Obama. Any impression of a US pressure in this regard during Obama’s visit could trigger off fresh violence in the Rakhine State, weakening the ability of the Thein Sein Government to restore law and order and to resettle the displaced persons in their home villages.

Non-Governmental human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have expressed their misgivings over the wisdom of Obama’s decision to visit Myanmar at this delicate time. They are worried it could prove counter-productive.

In a report on the situation in the Rakhine State, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) has been quoted by the media as saying as follows:

“The flare-up in Rakhine State represents a deeply disturbing backward step from Myanmar’s reforms. This is a time when political leaders must rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion rather than just following it. A failure to do so will be to the detriment of the country. There is a threat of rising identity politics in Myanmar as reforms give new found freedoms to interest groups. The situation needs decisive moral leadership… by both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi to prevent it spreading and contribute towards long-term solutions.” The ICG urged the Government to ensure camps for the displaced do not become a precursor to the “segregation” of Rakhine and Rohingya.

Obama’s tricky visit comes at a time when sections of the Rakhine Buddhists are demanding a policy of separate development for the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with separate educational institutions, hostels and buses for Rohingya Muslim students.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (Retired) in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is currently Director of the Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai; and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Reproduced with permission from the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

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