Myanmar leader, Obama to meet while reforms stall
WASHINGTON (AP) — Myanmar President Thein Sein’s historic White House visit next week is the culmination of U.S. outreach to a former pariah regime. That’s been based on a principle of taking “action for action” by deepening ties in response to democratic reforms.
But in the six months since Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation has been buffeted by communal and ethnic violence, and security forces are still accused of serious rights abuses. Activists and some in Congress are concerned it may be premature to welcome Myanmar’s leader to the White House for the first time in 47 years.
In November, on the eve of Obama’s visit, Thein Sein announced 11 policy commitments that were a product of negotiations with U.S. officials who want to see Myanmar, also known as Burma, continue its shift from authoritarian rule. The government has acted on some of those goals, but not on others. Here’s an assessment:
GOAL: Allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons.
UPDATE: In January, the government agreed to the first Red Cross prison visits in seven years. The agency has visited four jails, accompanied by a doctor, and spokesman Ewan Watson said it is pleased at the level of cooperation. Significantly, one of the jails is in Sittwe, Rakhine State, where hundreds of minority Muslims are believed detained and where there have been reports of torture and beatings.
GOAL: Invite the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in Myanmar.
UPDATE: Despite issuing a formal invitation, details have not been settled and the government has yet to allow the U.N. agency to open an office. That could reflect reticence about allowing in U.N. human rights workers with a mandate to conduct investigations. Daniel Collinge, a U.N. human rights officer, said negotiations with the government are ongoing.
GOAL: Allow blacklisted people to enter and leave the country.
UPDATE: Human rights activists, journalists and other foreigners who were among those previously blacklisted have been able to visit Myanmar, as have exiled Myanmar dissidents, although some, particularly those suspected of violent crimes, cannot get visas. Many, but not all, freed political prisoners in Myanmar who have sought to travel out of the country have been allowed to, although some who have only been paroled still face travel restrictions.
GOAL: Initiate a process to assess the criminality of remaining political prisoners.
UPDATE: A committee that includes senior prison officials and former prisoners has been set up to screen political detainees who remain behind bars. More than 800 prisoners of conscience have been freed in the past two years, including 19 released Friday, just before Thein Sein’s visit. According to the prisoner advocacy group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), at least 164 others are still held and the number could be much higher. An unknown number of people have been arrested in the past year on security grounds and for violating a law on peaceful assembly.
The committee has met three times. According to the association’s officer in charge, Aung Myo Thein, government representatives initially said they weren’t authorized to disclose prison-related information, but in a hopeful sign a week ago, they agreed to allow access to prisons and release prisoner lists. Aung Myo Thein said pressure from foreign governments, including the U.S., was still needed to ensure the committee functions properly.
The association remains concerned about conditions placed on released prisoners. One prisoner released in a January 2012 amnesty, Nay Myo Zin, was re-arrested this January after participating in a protest by farmers against land confiscations and ordered to serve six years of his original sentence. He was freed once more in the latest amnesty.
GOAL: Pursue a durable cease-fire in Kachin State, scene of the largest ethnic rebellion. Pursue sustainable political solutions with ethnic minorities.
UPDATE: Since independence, Myanmar has been plagued by fighting between its army and ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy. David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Thein Sein’s administration has done more to pursue sustainable peace than any Myanmar government for decades. But he said U.S. praise for that effort belies the actual progress. In December, fighting spiked in northern Kachin State, where a cease-fire collapsed two years ago. Government forces conducted airstrikes. Less intense clashes continue, and front-line government troops are reportedly being resupplied. The two sides have yet to agree on the format for their next talks. Fighting has also broken out in eastern Shan State against two rebel groups, straining cease-fires, and clashes are also reported in Karen State.
The government has met with an umbrella group representing various ethnic groups to discuss a framework for political dialogue but there have not been substantive talks. Mathieson voiced concern that in many cases, cease-fire negotiations have degenerated into semiprivate talks between authorities and top rebels focusing on business interests, not political grievances.
GOAL: Take decisive action in Rakhine State, the scene of communal violence, to prevent attacks against civilians, hold perpetrators to account and meet the humanitarian needs of the people. Address contentious political issues.
UPDATE: Savage outbreaks of communal violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims last June and October displaced about 140,000 people, killed 200 and destroyed more than 5,000 homes in western Rakhine State. Thousands of Muslims, the main victims of the violence, have fled by sea and hundreds have drowned.
Thein Sein appointed a panel to investigate the conflict and it made wide-ranging recommendations last month, including for the need to determine the citizenship status for the 800,000 stateless Muslims. But the government has taken little decisive action to resolve the crisis. Communities remain segregated and violence has spread to central Myanmar, killing dozens more people. Far more Muslims have been detained and prosecuted than Buddhists.
U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said he has credible allegations of widespread and systematic human rights violations by state officials in Rakhine State, including extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence and torture. He also reported a dire humanitarian situation in refugee camps. Human Rights Watch has accused authorities of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslims in Rakhine State, which the government has denied.
GOAL: Expedite negotiations with international humanitarian organizations for broader access to conflict-affected areas.
UPDATE: The government has permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross into conflict zones after years of restrictions, allowing it to provide medical and other help, but more broadly, international humanitarian assistance is still hampered. There have been only two U.N. aid deliveries into the scene of the worst fighting, Kachin State, during the past year, despite repeated appeals from the international community. The latest was in February. More than 80,000 people have been displaced by the two years of fighting, many of them in rebel areas.
GOAL: Sign the Additional Protocol to the U.N. nuclear agency’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement.
UPDATE: The U.S. has been pushing Myanmar to sign this agreement, which would require it to declare all nuclear facilities and materials and allow greater scrutiny by U.N. inspectors. That could lay to rest suspicions that the former ruling junta dabbled in nuclear technology, possibly with North Korea’s help, which Myanmar has always denied.
Thein Sein has approved the protocol and forwarded it to parliament. International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said the agency has held discussions with the government about the protocol and is providing assistance. But Myanmar has yet to adopt it. The Obama administration says it believes Myanmar has the political will to follow through on the commitment.
GOAL: Abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 prohibiting imports of weapons from North Korea.
UPDATE: Ending North Korean arms sales to Myanmar has been a key aim of the U.S. engagement policy. Although Myanmar denies violating the terms of Security Council resolutions, the Obama administration continues to ask Myanmar to sever its military ties to North Korea, suggesting the illicit trade continues.
GOAL: Strive for more open and accountable government.
UPDATE: The government has published its budget this year, with few details but more than before. It also allows increasing parliamentary scrutiny, and in January, Myanmar adopted the U.N. Convention against Corruption. But many repressive, junta-era laws remain in force, and the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights reported in March that he sees no evidence the judiciary is becoming independent of the executive.
GOAL: Combat human trafficking.
UPDATE: Last year, the U.S. removed Myanmar from its annual list of the worst offenders among nations that fail to combat human trafficking, and it appears willing to receive U.S. technical assistance to address what is an endemic problem. Mathieson said while the government has been more cooperative on the issue, that hasn’t translated into progress on the ground.
Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar, and Todd Pitman in Bangkok contributed to this report.