In November, President Obama will travel to Myanmar to attend the East Asia Summit, which brings together a broad range of nations from across the Pacific Rim. It will be the president’s second trip to Myanmar, following his landmark 2012 trip, which was the first by a sitting U.S. president to Myanmar since the country gained independence six decades ago. During the East Asia Summit, Obama almost surely will hold bilateral meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein and other senior Myanmar leaders, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The timing of the president’s visit to Myanmar will be important, but the rosy hue of U.S.-Myanmar relations that colored the president’s 2012 trip has dimmed significantly. This will be Obama’s only visit to Myanmar before the landmark 2015 national elections, the first truly contested national elections in Myanmar since 1990, when Suu Kyi’s party swept parliamentary elections and then the military essentially ignored the vote and kept control of the country. In the 2015 elections, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is almost sure to win a sweeping majority of seats again. However, both foreign diplomats, Myanmar analysts, and some opposition politicians already are warning that the 2015 elections could be undermined or outright rigged by the military, to favor the military’s de facto party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Myanmar political scientists and many foreign diplomats in Yangon report that the USDP and the military are building up paramilitary squads that could be used for intimidation on election day. The potential intimidation could range from distributing cash to co-opt opposition supporters to purposefully instigating Buddhist-Muslim violence to show the public that an unstable Myanmar cannot be turned over to a political opposition with no experience in governing.
In addition, since the high point of Myanmar’s reform process in 2012 and early 2013, the country’s political opening has stalled and, in my opinion, slid backwards. The recent murder of a Myanmar journalist while in army custody has highlighted the regression of the country’s media environment since 2012 and 2013. Although the online and print media in Myanmar remains far freer than it ever was under junta rule, journalists are once again being harassed, detained, tried—and apparently, murdered—by the military and police. In addition, journalists who dare the cover the conflict in western Myanmar’s Arakan State, where violence against Rohingya Muslims continues unabated, face severe threat from Buddhist paramilitary groups and their supporters.
The deteriorating media environment is not the only sign of Myanmar’s backsliding. Cease-fires between the government and several ethnic minority insurgencies are collapsing, with the insurgents and the army preparing for war again. Arakan State remains a humanitarian emergency, and Thein Sein’s government has taken few constructive measures to help restore order and rights in Arakan State. The government initially simply denied the violence in Arakan State, pretending that massacres of Rohingya had not happened and tossing foreign aid groups out of Arakan State. Now, the Thein Sein government has come up with a plan for the Rohingya that is unworkable and simply racist: It wants the Rohingya to identify themselves as “Bengali” if they want to be granted Myanmar citizenship. If they do not accept this identification, the government plans to toss more Rohingya into detention camps. (A previous, military government stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, though many of them had lived in Myanmar for generations.) But self-identifying as Bengali is akin to Rohingya marking themselves as foreigners, since to them—and to other Burmese—the term Bengali suggests that they are not indeed from Myanmar, came to Myanmar illegally, and thus can be discriminated against.
Rohingya have few options. The NGO Arakan Project recently reported that over 100,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the past two years, with many dying at sea or finding themselves at the mercy of pirates, the ruthless Thai navy, and a human slavery trade that runs through Thailand.
Obama thus should use his time in Myanmar to highlight to Naypyidaw that, although the Obama administration has made rapprochement with Myanmar a major goal of its Asia policy, rapprochement increasingly depends on continued political reform in Myanmar. A rigged 2015 election, Obama should warn Naypyidaw, would immediately undermine U.S.-Myanmar relations, and a return to all-out war with ethnic insurgencies also should be a serious impediment to closer ties. Finally, Obama should make clear that the Thein Sein government’s proposed plan for the Rohingya is unsatisfactory and outright racist.
In my next post, I will look at how, despite its rich natural resources and large, untapped consumer market, Myanmar has thus far proven relatively unattractive for U.S. companies. As an article in the Wall Street Journal noted, despite the relaxation of U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, as of August 2014 U.S. companies have committed less than $250 million to investments in the country of fifty million people, a minuscule amount for a market the size of Myanmar.