President Obama shakes hands with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein in the Oval Office May 20, 2013. (AP PHOTO JACQUELYN MARTIN)
Can a former dictator become a true reformer? The photo of a beaming President Obama shaking hands with Burmese President Thein Sein in the Oval Office suggests he can. This image is symbolic of a new era of cooperation between the West and the long isolated nation of Burma.
President Obama made a number of efforts to accommodate his guest on this historic visit to Washington and offer “diplomatic courtesy.” This marked the first occasion in which the U.S. government officially used the term Myanmar, what the military junta renamed Burma after the 1988 student uprising. He congratulated President Sein and stated that “the United States will make every effort to assist you in what I know is a long and sometimes difficult but ultimately correct path to follow.”
Yet, as Burma cautiously opens its doors to the world and shows signs of historic democratic reforms, the treatment of its minority communities remains a dark and bloody stain.
In March, the riots against the Muslim population were evidence of only worsening and expanding violence against minorities with the government and international community doing little to stop it. Reports indicate that in that month alone there were at least 43 deaths and more than 1,300 homes burned. A Buddhist monk-led movement in central Burma is encouraging shoppers to patronize only Buddhist-owned stores that display the number 969, a Buddhist symbol, and to boycott Muslim-owned businesses. Their goal, according to the monk leading the movement who uses the metaphor of a tree’s seed planted in a pagoda for the Muslims, is to “cut it out before it grows and destroys the building.”
This ethnic cleansing of the Muslim community represents only the latest challenge for a country still in the birth pains of democracy after the darkness of decades of authoritarian military rule. Yet the oppression of minority communities, such as the Kachin and Karen peoples, runs much deeper in the history of a nation with 135 ethnic groups. The situation is most desperate, however, for the Muslim Rohingya whose mere existence is denied by the government.
Beginning in the 1970s, the Rohingya, whom the state accuses of being illegal Bengali immigrants, have been systematically and violently pushed off their lands in the southwestern state of Arakan by government security forces and have seen the complete negation of all their human and civil rights. They are a stateless minority facing what can only be called genocide. Many hundreds of thousands have fled the violence as pitiful refugees to other nations in the region, where they are met with neglect or outright hostility and forced to rot in ill-supplied makeshift camps or government detention centers.
Despite Burma’s democratic reforms which the world is ready to embrace it for, the relationship between the Buddhist center and Muslim periphery has only widened. This long-standing hostility against the Rohingya people, in particular by the neighboring Buddhist Rakhine, sparked widely reported violence in June 2012. The rioting led to over 1,000 Rohingya deaths, according to Rohingya human rights groups though the official death toll stands much lower at 180. Entire villages were burned to the ground and mosques destroyed, leading to the forced displacement of an estimated 125,000 Rohingya without access to humanitarian aid which was initially being blocked by the government.
A Human Rights Watch report released in April 2013 referred to the June campaign as state-supported “ethnic cleansing.” It highlighted the fact that local security forces “assisted the killings by disarming the Rohingya of their sticks and other rudimentary weapons they carried to defend themselves”.
In the month following the violence in Arakan state, President Thein Sein stated his desire to turn the entire Rohingya population over to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement in foreign countries. He went on to state that the Rohingya do not exist and are in fact illegal immigrants. This opinion is shared by the heroine of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi who has remained silent about the suffering of these people. Despite these positions, President Sein has won high international acclaim for his efforts in fostering democratic reform, including being awarded the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s top peace prize award in April 2013. President Obama praised the Burmese leader in his visit to the White House earlier this week by congratulating “the leadership that President Sein has shown in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform.” He would go on to state that “President Sein has also made genuine efforts to resolve longstanding ethnic conflicts within the country.”
President Sein, a former general from within the military junta, did offer a glimmer of hope as he expressed concerns over the continued violence against Burma’s Muslim population. He stated during his visit to Washington that he vowed to end the communal violence and bring those responsible to justice. Though his words in the United States were spoken at the same time as the Arakan government in Burma was implementing new restrictions on the number of babies Rohingya families are able to have, limiting them to two. But only if granted a permit by the government to have the children in the first place, permission which is not forthcoming without a hefty bribe which few can afford.
Are these merely the empty promises of a Burmese president seeking Western approval and trade or the first steps of true reform leading to a democratic and inclusive Burma? President Sein as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, as the moral leader of the country, should both reach out to the Muslim and other minority populations that have suffered since the establishment of military rule in 1962, in particular the Rohingya. They should recognize the Rohingya’s human and civil rights and grant them their long denied citizenship.
As President Obama stated as he stood beside President Sein at the White House, “I shared with President Sein our deep concern about communal violence that has been directed at Muslim communities inside of Myanmar. The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop, and we are prepared to work in any ways that we can with both the government of Myanmar and the international community to assure that people are getting the help that they need but, more importantly, that their rights and their dignity is recognized over the long term.”
President Obama’s statement earlier this week resonates with his speech at Yangon University during his official visit to Burma last November, in which he acknowledged the suffering of the “innocent” Rohingya people. He recognized that “The Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.” The first step for President Sein and the Burmese government is not only to recognize this dignity but also to recognize the existence of the Rohingya.
is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service. He assisted Akbar Ahmed on his latest book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings 2013).