A Hasty Rapprochement With Burma

Obama has to demand that Burma forge ahead with democratic reforms.

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In this Nov. 19, 2011 photo, President Barack Obama stands next to Myanmar President Thein Sein.

Ellen Bork is the director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

The fast pace of rapprochement between Burma and the United States continued this week with the visit of Burma's president Thein Sein to Washington, where he met with President Obama and congressional leaders and signed a trade agreement. At the same time, political reform in Burma has slowed to a crawl. In its haste to pursue a closer relationship with Burma, the administration risks forfeiting the gains of more than 20 years of a policy of supporting democracy in that strategic Southeast Asian nation.

Last year, the Obama administration said it would pursue a positive but measured response to tentative reforms in Burma – including the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a dramatic easing of political repression and censorship. The U.S. sent its first ambassador to Rangoon in more than 20 years and suspended major economic sanctions.

Yet promises made to justify Obama's historic trip to Rangoon last November have not been fulfilled, including the opening of a United Nations office on human rights and humanitarian access to areas where the Burmese army is fighting ethnic armies. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of political prisoners has actually increased. In advance of his arrival in Washington, Thein Sein personally ordered the release of 19 political prisoners, a sign of both the president's ability to act when he chooses and the use of prisoners as bargaining chips.

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Meanwhile, decisive and systemic reforms remain unmade. Without changes to its constitution, the military will maintain a dominant role in government and the economy and Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to run in the 2015 nationwide elections (her children's foreign citizenship is disqualifying). Violence and racism against Burma's Rohingya Muslims – stoked by some Burmese monks – may spread to other ethnic communities. This delicate situation is reason to press forward with reform to build a democratic culture based on the rule of law.

The U.S. has placed its hopes on Thein Sein and a few of his top officials. A former general and aide to the former dictator, Than Shwe, Thein Sein is thought to have personal integrity, but his public statements suggest a less than full appreciation of democracy.

Washington's desire to improve relations with Burma's government is understandable. A country of 55 million, Burma sits between China and the Indian Ocean. China has been courting Burma's military regime and investing heavily. The U.S. is keen catch up.

Burma's strategic value makes a principled American policy to support democracy there more, not less important. Countries with democratic institutions are better able to resist pressure from authoritarian regimes. Burma's people welcome U.S. and European companies, but caution against rapid investment that bolsters corruption and military control of the economy. Although Washington officially directs American businesses away from corrupt "crony" businessmen, in practice the policy has been haphazard or worse. A U.S. official told the Associated Press that in order to pursue engagement with Burma, Washington has been "less than fully aggressive" in identifying those people American companies must not do business with.

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The Obama administration insists closer ties with Burma's famously brutal military are far off, but at the White House Thein Sein referred to "assistance to our police and military force." Congress should make sure that U.S. policy toward the Tatmadaw, Burma's military organization, is premised on meaningful structural reforms to establish transparency and accountability with the participation of Burma's parliament and human rights groups.

Washington shouldn't sell Burma's people or American interests short. A democratic Burma will be a better ally for the U.S. When I visited Burma last summer, a member of the National League for Democracy's leadership complained bitterly about his government's alliance with China in the United Nations, particularly on Syria, a stance that put Burma in the same company as North Korea, Belarus and Russia.

The Obama administration insists that democracy and human rights are not only the goal but the means of advancing American interests in Asia. "People look to us for leadership because of the values we represent," Daniel Baer of the State Department told Congress in March. "As we push for these changes, this is something that we can do that augments our influence." U.S. policy going forward should more confidently and urgently seek democratic progress in Burma based on this understanding of its strategic value and appeal to Burma's people.

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