This post was also published on the Partnership for a Secure America’s “Across the Aisle” blog.
The United States’ relationship with Burma has greatly changed in a brief period of time. Just three years ago, Burma was a pariah state subject to severe American sanctions. Today, sanctions have been lessened and the Burmese president is welcomed at the White House. The reason for these changes is Burma’s quasi-military government’s decision to carry out political reform toward a more democratic system. However, political oppression and human rights violations continue.
The Obama Administration, while aware of these abuses, persists in rewarding the Burmese government for geo-strategic reasons. Because of this, Congress must press the Administration to institute a more deliberate policy that rewards Burma with economic and diplomatic engagement only when concrete, sustained benchmarks have been met.
Since the late 1980s, the United States has targeted the Burmese government with sanctions because of its human rights violations and political oppression. Bipartisanship in Congress was central to establishing these sanctions.
In 2008, the ruling generals announced their intent to transition towards democracy. Two years later, a general election was held, which ostensibly allowed a civilian government headed by former general U Thein Sein to run the country.
Since the general election, the government has implemented civil society reforms, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, after 15 years of house arrest and allowed her to be sworn into parliament.
The United States rewarded the Burmese government for these reforms by lifting its sanctions. The Obama Administration initially proposed lifting sanctions section-by-section, but a bipartisan push in Congress played a large role in the determination to remove almost all sanctions.
Following two trips to Burma in 2012, John McCain (R-AZ) announced his support for suspending sanctions. Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and James Inhofe (R-OK) jointly penned a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that all sanctions should be removed to foster a business environment supportive of the rule of law and “human development.”
Unfortunately, it now seems that the United States rushed too quickly into engagement with Burma.
Hate speech, bigotry, intimidation, and violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, are rampant in Burma. Over 250,000 Rohingya have been internally displaced, 1,000 have been killed, and mosques and 10,000 Rohingya homes have been destroyed. In some cases, the Burmese military or police have perpetrated these attacks, or have done nothing to stop the violence.
The Burmese military also limits Christian worship and targets Christians for forced labor, rape, and intimidation.
Because of its treatment of religious minorities, the Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan advisory board appointed by the President and Congress, named Burma a “country of particular concern.”
The removal of sanctions has also had the perverse effect of victimizing minority groups. The Burmese military has directed violence against ethnic minority groups to force them off their land for the purpose of leasing the land to foreign businesses, which are now able to invest in the country.
Political reforms could easily be rolled back by the military, which under the current constitution – drafted by the military government – is guaranteed 25% control of the Burmese parliament, effectively granting it veto power.
Despite these issues, the Obama Administration rewards the Burmese generals. The Administration has allowed the Burmese military to observe the Cobra Gold military exercise, lifted the visa ban on top Burmese officials, hosted President Thein Sein at the White House, signed a trade and investment framework agreement with Burma, and began military-to-military activities.
The Obama Administration has decided that its geo-strategic aims outweigh the reformation of Burma’s civil society. These aims include limiting Burma’s relationship with China and North Korea – including a possible nuclear relationship between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang. This has allowed a system to develop whereby the Burmese military feels it can act with impunity in relation to human rights abuses and delayed political reforms so long as it acquiesces to American geo-strategic objectives.
Therefore, it is up to Congress to keep pressure on the Obama Administration and insist that Burma continue political reforms, improve its human rights situation, and respect the rule of law.
This appears to be occurring. At a recent hearing on Burma, Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) posited that military-to-military engagement occurred far too soon in light of the military’s continued dominance in the government and its complicity in human rights abuses. Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) expressed his concern for the Rohingya. Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA) framed the human rights situation in the context of credibility, stating that the United States must help Muslims abroad who are victims of human rights abuses if we want to have influence in the Muslim world to combat terrorism.
Burma’s transition to a democratic society will take time and commitment – a commitment that the Obama Administration is unfortunately less concerned with than its regional security objectives. It is now up to Congress to make a bipartisan push to reassess the United States’ Burma policy and recommit to the cause of human rights and political reform.