By Rep. Trent Franks and Rep. Rush Holt, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) are members of the U.S. Congress. The views expressed are their own.
For the first time since hosting Burmese dictator Ne Win nearly 50 years ago, the United States will host another head of state from Myanmar. The historic visit from President Thein Sein on Monday will, no doubt, lead to much discussion of Myanmar’s extremely long road toward democracy and whether there may be a relapse in their recent reform. It is also an opportunity to evaluate America’s new Myanmar policy.
As the U.S. reengages with Myanmar, also known as Burma, some Americans have lost sight of the ongoing, violent war against many of Myanmar's ethnic and religious minorities. This being the case, the U.S. must closely evaluate its policy towards Myanmar and ensure that no action or word from the U.S. government be interpreted as a lack of concern for human rights abuse that continues in Myanmar, some of which Human Rights Watch has gone so far as to call “a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
The U.S. relationship with Myanmar from 1990 to 2011 was virtually nonexistent, governed by strict sanctions brought about by the military government’s widespread, often brutal, violation of basic rights.
After the transfer of power to a quasi-civilian government in April 2011, Myanmar's government has taken modest steps toward democratization. The Obama administration responded by rapidly lifting, easing, or suspending almost all sanctions on Myanmar.
Obama’s “Asia pivot” focuses on the administration’s management of alliances, its force posture, and trade policy to counterbalance the rising regional power of China. As an expression of America’s enduring commitment to Asia, the “Asia Pivot” is a good thing. In Southeast Asia, however, it too often devolves into simply adapting policy to please governments in the region while ignoring human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch’s charge of “ethnic cleansing” is certainly justifiable. Communal violence in June 2012 between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state was brutally used against Rohingya Muslims and, more recently, spread anti-Muslim violence in central Myanmar. Most of the hundreds of casualties and more than the 100,000 displaced are minority Muslims.
The Burmese military’s ongoing war against the Kachin ethnic and Christian minority in northeast Myanmar over the past two years has resulted in undetermined civilian casualties, the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labor, and more than 100,000 displaced. Over the past few months, we have seen the breakdown of fragile ceasefires in Shan state, reached only last year, where recent attacks by the military have caused Shan and Palaung minority communities to flee.
During President Thein Sein’s visit to Washington, DC, President Obama should call for the unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners. More than 1,000 Rohingya – a heavily persecuted Muslim population within Myanmar – are still imprisoned since violence broke out in Arakan state last June 2012. After the military attacked ethnic regions in Myanmar during the past two years, nearly 500 – half of whom are Kachin Christians – became political prisoners.
Myanmar’s deeply flawed constitution, meanwhile, grants the Burmese military sweeping authority and contains no effective checks on its power to commit atrocities against ethnic minorities. Reform within Myanmar cannot occur without substantial constitutional reform measures. Article 20 – which grants the military authority over civilians and jurisdiction to safeguard “unity” – essentially provides justification for the military’s regular attacks against civilian populations in ethnic areas. Myanmar is always in danger of reversion to war and military rule until the constitution addresses the underlying reasons for ethnic conflict.
Many bipartisan voices within Congress strongly support using necessary caution in future relations with Myanmar. As U.S. policy “pivots” towards Asia, we should establish firm benchmarks to give pro-reform forces within Myanmar, including ethnic and religious minority groups, the appropriate leverage to foster democracy and lasting civilian rule. Benchmarks should focus on progress of rule of law and constitutional reform to create a federal system with respect for minority rights and civilian control of the military, the release of all political prisoners, use of forced labor and child soldiers by the military, treatment of internally displaced people, and withdrawal of the military from ethnic areas. Sanctions against Myanmar's military – the primary perpetrator of human rights abuse in the country – should be the last sanctions to be lifted after these benchmarks are met.
The U.S. must not shy away from the historic role it has played in Myanmar’s reform and President Obama should use President Thein Sein’s visit to highlight these necessary reforms. If Myanmar is to be a stabilizing force in the region, the government and military must undertake constitutional reform and end ethnic and religious violence. If Myanmar is to move into the 21st century with respect to human rights and political freedoms, the U.S. can certainly help.