Ye Aung Thu / AFP / Getty Images

With upcoming poll, US takes wait-and-see approach on Myanmar policy

Observers say in addition to election, government policy toward the Rohingya minority is a yardstick for reform

Myanmar’s upcoming elections are being seen as the true test of Burma’s commitment to reform by the United States, which remains somewhat optimistic that they will bring about positive change despite the exclusion of more than 4 million people from the voting list.

“We’re not wearing rose-colored glasses here,” State Department official Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau, told the House subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs during a Wednesday hearing on the challenges facing the country formerly known as Burma.

As 93 political parties and more than 6000 candidates compete for seats in parliament, observers hope that this year’s elections won’t be a re-run of the past, when the ruling military rejected the outcome at the polls. 

“We are very mindful of fundamental structural defects. There is nothing fair about reserving 25 percent of the legislature for the military, nothing fair about disenfranchising the white card holders — the Rohingyas — but Aung San Suu Kyi, the [National League for Democracy], the parties, have decided to contest the election on that basis, mindful of those defects,” he added.

The government of Myanmar has been issuing white cards, a temporary form of identification, to some communities, including the Rohingya — a Muslim minority group — since 1995, and recently started replacing them with green cards.  The white card holders were not allowed to vote and it remains unclear if the green cards allow the holder to vote.

The Rohingya have faced persecution for decades but clashes between the country’s  Buddhist and Muslim communities in the western state of Rakhine in 2012 left hundreds dead and displaced more than 110,000 people, forcing them into camps where reports say they face desperate conditions. Tens of thousands have taken to boats to escape the oppressive conditions, seeking a new life in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

“We've been greatly disappointed as U.S. policy on Rohingya is very detached from Burma policy,” said Jennifer Quigley, president of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, who spoke before the Subcommittee.

“At the same time as the US is embracing the apparent improvement in human rights in Myanmar as a whole, we've seen quite a deterioration in human rights of Rohingya,” she said.

“[The Rohingya] are like an extraneous issue that is not central to US Burma policy as a whole.”

'Tremendous' rights abuses

The push for Rohingya to be accepted as citizens in Myanmar has been met with resistance by the government as well as some in the Buddhist community
Mohd Rasfan / AFP / Getty Images

Rohingya and rights abuses haven’t necessarily been overlooked, they’ve been the focus of a lot of hearings and statements from the Ambassador and President Obama, Joshua Kurtlanzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeeera America.

"The policy has generally been to move gradually towards the complete restoration of normal ties,” said Kurtlanzick. “From having no ambassador to having an ambassador, and moving towards military-to-military ties, moving towards the end of sanctions, encouraging investment."

But a gradual shift has not necessarily changed the course of U.S. policy.

"The administration has tried to portray our new relationship and the new Burma as a success story and I think probably the most positive thing you can say is that the jury is still out on that," said Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee said at Wednesday’s hearing. "There are still tremendous human rights abuses of minorities, and the military is involved in these things, particularly with respect to Rohingya."

He added that the treatment of the Rohingya is the true yardstick of reform: "The elections are important, but this is even more important."

According to Jonathan Stivers, Assistant Administrator for the US development agency’s Asia Bureau, the Obama administration has spent $18 million to support Myanmar’s election process, channeled through organizations such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, in an effort to support the democratic process.

The Obama administration has faced criticism for its apparent willingness to cooperate with Myanmar’s government, even when progress on reform has fallen short of promises.

"I think Freedom House and many other human rights organizations did believe that the US was quick to ease sanctions," said Lauren Galacia, Senior Program Officer for Southeast Asia at Freedom House, a non-profit organization focusing on democracy and political freedom. Still, Galacia said opportunities remain to put pressure on Myanmar’s government to protect the country’s minorities.

"Either with sanctions or economic incentives or the way they deal with the military. I think there are still ways and that the US should maintain a strong stance on their recognition of human rights," she said.

But speaking after the hearing, Quigley said the administration was, "very vague on their benchmarks on what would be for an acceptable election and very vague on what the US would commit to after the election."

The Obama administration, however, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The United States will call it as we see it,” said Russel. “We will make an assessment based on the facts and we will calibrate our response to the elections based on our assessment of how credible, how transparent, how inclusive, how free and fair we think it was."

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