Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty Images

Obama faces pressure to curb Myanmar’s democratic backsliding

The president visits Myanmar for a second time, amid rising criticism of its human rights record

When Barack Obama made the first-ever visit to Myanmar by a sitting U.S. president in 2012, the country was just beginning to shed its pariah status following decades of economic isolation and ethnic violence overseen by a strong-fisted military junta. The new, nominally civilian government had relaxed restrictions on press freedom, released noted political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and — thanks to the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions — opened its doors to American companies.

But as Obama arrives for another meeting in the country with President Thein Sein, on the sidelines of the ASEAN conference on Thursday, the euphoria about Myanmar's democratic progress has deflated. A bloody war in Kachin state reignited in June 2011, and violent persecution of Myanmar's Muslim minority has forced more than 100,000 ethnic Rohingyans to flee the country since 2012. Journalists continue to be arrested for printing stories that criticize the government, and many political dissidents remain behind bars.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi, the country’s opposition leader, is barred from running for the presidency next year due to a constitutional stipulation that candidates have military experience, which effectively bans all women from contesting.

Myanmar's backsliding poses a dilemma for Obama, who will have to strike a balance between taking the government to task without sacrificing the tenets of his “pivot to Asia” — expanding trade, forging military partnerships, and otherwise keeping China at bay, all of which are just getting underway in Myanmar.

In an interview with the Myanmar-focused newspaper The Irrawaddy, Obama said he would convey to Sein his concerns that Myanmar was moving backwards on human rights and democratic freedoms. He called out the government on the “treatment of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities” and noted reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and forced labor, as well as the ongoing imprisonment of political dissidents and journalists.

Obama said the country’s election in 2015 would be “critical to establishing a representative democracy that reflects the aspirations of all the people of Burma. And of course it will shape how the United States engages with the country going forward.”

But rights advocates are skeptical Obama will do anything to risk souring relations with Myanmar, a rapidly emerging trade partner in China’s backyard. Writing in the Huffington Post, former State Department speechwriter Rena Pederson said Thursday’s meeting “may show whether the Obama administration is more concerned about China long-term than promoting ideals at the moment.”

Obama is treading a delicate political line, too, not wanting to be perceived as overtly meddling in domestic affairs. Some are disappointed the president has not explicitly endorsed Suu Kyi’s bid to reform the constitution so as to make her eligible for the presidency. Instead, he told Irrawaddy, “it is not the place of the United States or any other nation to tell you how to decide your future.”

Obama is unlikely to "yank the welcome mat from under [Sein]," wrote Nirmal Ghosh in an op-ed for Thai daily The Nation. The U.S., he said, "recognizes the reality of Myanmar's fractious, volatile and sometimes ugly politics and the inherent fragility of the transition with the military watching from the wings."

There is also a line of argument in Myanmar political circles that if Obama goes overboard with his criticism, the military strongmen who still lead the government will simply "go back into their shells," said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project at the Open Society Foundations.

But she did not agree that Obama needed to be cautious. “The fact that he’s gone twice to this former pariah country is a huge prize for them. It also subtly reminds China that he’s willing to be friends with this county contiguous to them. So there are many things he can do without having to compromise his values,” she said.

Economic sanctions are not likely to return now that U.S. companies are rushing into newly opened Myanmar and beginning to challenge Chinese dominance of its markets. But Obama does have the option of threatening personal sanctions against top government officials, a step Washington has taken in the past.

Activists hope Obama will at least use his audience with Sien to vocalize that many of the sweeping reforms of the past five years were not all they were cracked up to be. New laws that ostensibly permit public protest, for instance, require activists to apply for permits two weeks in advance. They are often denied if the matter is politically sensitive, said Myra Dahgaypaw, Karen human rights activist from Karen State, Eastern Burma, now with the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, D.C.

Other major grievances include proposed bans on interfaith marriage and religious conversions, and the government’s confiscation of huge tracts of land from poor farmers and religious minorities, which Dahgaypaw said was often done in the name of economic development.

“I want economic progress, but Obama has to be very mindful that trade and economic development help people move up the ladder, not put more people into poverty,” she said. “The little people can talk over and over, but we’re preaching to the deaf. We don’t have the power to pressure them. Obama does.”

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