During President Obama’s visit to Myanmar last week, for the East Asia Summit, the president said some of the right things about Myanmar’s faltering political reform process. He noted the ongoing discrimination – some would say outright ethnic cleansing – against Rohingya in western Myanmar, as well as the precarious rule of law in much of the country. He expressed concern about the challenges of Myanmar’s elections next year, which will be held under a constitution designed to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the presidency and which still reserves enormous powers for the military. The constitution, as it stands, will pose a danger to any future Myanmar civilian government, even if Suu Kyi’s party, as expected, wins control of Parliament next year. And much of the press coverage of the Myanmar visit focused on the president’s remarks about Myanmar’s political challenges. Indeed, Obama’s aides clearly briefed reporters covering the trip to emphasize that the visit was focused on pressuring the Myanmar leadership to reform, since several news articles picked up this theme.
However, Obama also was far too optimistic about the path forward for Myanmar. His administration clearly is so wedded to its policy of rapprochement with Naypyidaw that it is hard for it to consider that Myanmar’s success story might not actually be such a success. After noting Myanmar’s problems, Obama repeatedly indicated that, despite bumps, he believes Myanmar is solidly on the path toward democratic change. As the New York Times noted, after Obama’s meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, “In his meetings with government officials, opposition leaders and young people, Mr. Obama expressed confidence that the country would overcome its current troubles.” Or, as Bloomberg noted, the White House’s take is that “reform in Myanmar is bound to be difficult.” This is surely true, but just because reform is difficult does not mean the White House should ignore severe human rights problems and other serious gaps in the reform process.
Obama also declined to offer any criticism of Suu Kyi or other government leaders for basically ignoring the violence against the Rohingya; on the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has done as little as the Myanmar government, squandering her moral authority. Obama also applied little rhetorical pressure on the Myanmar government to allow foreign NGOs greater access to populations of Rohingya and other internally displaced people, many of whom are living in camps described by rights groups as little more than open air prisons. More important, during the visit Obama offered no indication that the United States would halt growing military-to-military and diplomatic ties with Myanmar, at least until after the 2015 elections are held and declared free and fair. Slowing the pace of rapprochement with Myanmar is a path some human rights groups and some hawks in Congress may push the administration to take – including the new Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who has long been known for his interest in Myanmar and in human rights in Myanmar.
Obama’s unwillingness to match criticism of the Myanmar government with action is not surprising. The administration has touted the blossoming of U.S.-Myanmar relations as a major foreign policy victory, and likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made rapprochement with Myanmar a theme of her tenure as secretary of state. Admitting that Myanmar’s democratization process has huge flaws, and that perhaps the United States moved too quickly in normalizing ties with the country, would be admitting that the administration might not have won the victory in Myanmar that it claims.