Last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski, U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, and a group of other U.S. officials from State, Defense, and USAID were in Myanmar for the second U.S.-Burma Human Rights Dialogue. The dialogue came at a time when Myanmar’s rights record is backsliding, more than one-hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims remain internally displaced in Myanmar, and there are concerns, both within Myanmar and among outside countries, that this year’s critical national elections will be waylaid, not allowing the vote to go on freely and fairly.
U.S. officials clearly understand these concerns—President Barack Obama very gently expressed his worry about the challenges in Myanmar during a trip to the country last fall—but before the dialogue, the Obama administration had continued to push forward its rapprochement with Naypyidaw. In part, as I argue in a new CFR working paper on the pivot and Southeast Asia, the White House has continued its rapprochement with Myanmar so as not to undermine what it considers a foreign policy success story of Obama’s presidency. I further argue in the paper that rapprochement has had yielded limited strategic benefits for the United States (and minimal quality opportunities, other than in oil and gas, for U.S. companies up to this point), while undermining U.S. credibility on democracy promotion in Southeast Asia.
U.S. officials had previously been reluctant to offer significant public criticism of Myanmar’s faltering reforms. So it was refreshing to see Assistant Secretary Malinowski be quite blunt, in a press conference, about Myanmar’s problems. “There is a great deal of skepticism in some quarters about whether the reform process is continuing and fears about tensions and other problems that might arise in a year in which the election will be first and foremost in people’s minds,” Malinowski said. He also expressed concern that Myanmar’s government is “playing with fire” by not taking a tougher approach toward people using religion to create divides among Myanmar citizens—people like those leading the growing Buddhist paramilitary movement in Myanmar. In fact, the government has not only ignored the anti-Muslim violence but also has abetted it, allowing new legislation that would make it almost impossible for people in Myanmar to have interfaith marriages and conversions.
However welcome Malinowski’s comments were, the Obama administration should not only offer frank criticism of Myanmar’s leadership, in public and in private. The United States has significant leverage in Myanmar. The Myanmar armed forces desire a much closer relationship with Washington, and while U.S. investment is not that significant in Myanmar at this point, it could become much greater if the bilateral relationship is completely normalized and it becomes easier for U.S. companies to invest in Myanmar.
The White House should take steps, beyond offering public criticism of Naypyidaw, to freeze aspects of the bilateral relationship with Myanmar until after the 2015 elections are completed. This freeze should remain in place until the country has made a transition to a new, fairly elected government. Most importantly, the White House should halt further restoration of military-to-military ties until after the election. This halt would serve, in part, as a signal to the still-powerful Myanmar armed forces that they need to allow the election to go forward freely, even if the opposition National League for Democracy party clearly is going to triumph. The freeze on military-to-military relations also should be utilized to apply more pressure on Naypyidaw to investigate possible links between uniformed military and the Buddhist paramilitary groups, and to punish military officers involved with the paramilitaries.