By Hal Levy, undergraduate student at Columbia University
The White House moved with uncharacteristic speed to announce a surprising foreign policy initiative two days after President Obama’s reelection. He was going to Burma and it was happening right now, less than two weeks after the votes were counted, and because he decided that everything would happen so quickly it was far too late to haggle over his itinerary, which by the way was already in place. “Why scrutinize this?” was the implicit message to human rights activists, “because we don’t want your input this time.”
However, this landmark engagement with the current Burmese regime warrants scrutiny and at the very least revision if it is to go forward. Burma is finally opening to Western investment, but Obama must not abandon America’s responsibility to protect potential Burmese workers in favor of geopolitical games and economic opportunity. Fraudulent elections held in 2010 transferred power to a mixture of civilians and military-appointed candidates in name only, while President Thein Sein and the military establishment retained near-total control of the country. The concern that has been reluctantly expressed by activists – including a silenced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – is that Obama’s visit is really a cynical approach to ending successful sanctions merely in exchange for recent reforms in Burma that may be cosmetic and temporary. While dialogue is generally good in any situation, a visit from Obama (and on the heels of the high-profile visit from Secretary Clinton in December 2011) is a rebuke to the international human rights community, and one that has startled even more “realist” domestic observers.
It is true that reformers in the Burmese government have fought military hardliners to break Burma’s long isolation from the West, and are certainly due for increased international backing. However, the U.S. has so far managed to provide appropriately escalating support with the appointment of a new ambassador and fewer trade restrictions. A visit from the President is a great deal stronger than the current framework of “action for action” and risks delivering a message to the Burmese government that it is safe to stop their welcome but incremental progress on reform.
Will this be seen as rewarding a democratic transition, or the mere start of a client state relationship? White House human rights advisor Samantha Power wrote the day after news of the trip broke that it will help the administration monitor “continued progress on the road to democracy.” Despite this, Human Rights Watch “think[s] that the visit is premature,” with their puzzled Asia director Phil Robertson quoted in a Los Angeles Times article asking, “what’s actually the rush?”
Much less information about Burma filters out to the West than that of more prominent human rights violators, and so the U.S. government is privy to more details than the public. And the idea of Burmese engagement as a credible demonstration of Western-supported democratization for North Korea is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the trip. Yet for Obama, it is indisputably irresponsible to engage Thein Sein without making meaningful assurances on the part of the U.S. to protect human rights in Burma.
While time may prove otherwise, it appears Obama’s visit is not the beginning of massive civic change but rather presages a freeze on rights (a conciliatory amnesty declaration in advance of Obama’s visit was revised to exclude political prisoners) and the expansion of sweatshop labor for Burma’s massive underemployed population. At a minimum, all statements that the White House releases about President Obama’s time in Burma should make clear that the minimum standards for Burma’s development do not begin at the current point, and that the end of U.S. sanction efforts are conditioned on the continuance of reforms.
Since Obama has inexorably set himself on the path to Burma, he should at least reverse the course of his discussions there and turn his trip into a push for justice. Commerce and shared foreign policy interests are certainly valid topics for Obama and his Burmese counterparts to address, but there is room for human rights as well…be it the need for an independent judiciary, internet access sans censorship, or to give strength to recently escalated calls to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.
The President currently has a singular chance to control the timetable of U.S. investment in Burma. In light of little domestic opposition, he should do this by sticking to the commitments he has publicly made to begin a fair trading relationship; what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly referred to as “democracy friendly, human rights friendly investments.” Burma has no shortage of human rights indicators to tie to economic cooperation. And even when Obama leaves, stringently enforced rights-aware trade will give the international community the continued leverage to ensure Burma’s democratic transition. The U.S. can go a long way towards funding civil society and free association in Burma, even if done indirectly through conditional approval of local business operations.
To be sure, these are bold steps. But if Obama is comfortable with making bold steps in regard to the sensitive subject of human rights in Burma, he might as well do it in full measure. Transitional solutions should appeal to the Burmese military, foreign investors and the President alike as paths to true stability in Burma. A military-civilian hybrid Burma will remain just another political actor, but a grateful democratic Burma can become a new U.S. ally in the region. (I realize this argument has been used to justify disastrous misadventures over time and in America’s recent past. However, the will of the people as evidenced by the success of the National League for Democracy, the Burmese populace’s favorable opinion of the U.S., and perhaps even lessons learned in other nation-building follies may contribute to different circumstances in this case).
The White House’s own statement on Obama’s trip mentions the relative benefits of transparency and democracy. President Obama has recognized Burma’s problems, but has he simultaneously excused them? It is still quite possible that this much slower approach to human rights may succeed, but Obama has historically made a mockery out of human rights trade enforcement. It is up to President Obama to demonstrate America’s lasting commitment by making the solidification of Burmese civil society the primary focus of his trip, and not merely a hollow excuse for unfair and unsustainable trade.
Hal Levy is a junior at Columbia University majoring in human rights. He is the Treasurer of Columbia University Students for Human Rights.