Obama must speak truth to Myanmar
May 20th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

Obama must speak truth to Myanmar

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.

More from CNN: Will EU regret dropping sanctions?

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.

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Topics: Asia • Myanmar • United States

soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Brett Champion

    Nowhere in this piece do Franks and Holt ever mention why what goes on inside Burma is of any business to, let alone the responsibility of, the US. How about we try minding our own business for once? There is absolutely no national interest of the US at stake in Burma.

    May 20, 2013 at 7:36 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The authors were trying to say that forging a good relationship with Myanmar would serve the US interests in Obama's pivot to Asia. Burma is the world's largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It has also highly fertile soil and important offshore oil and gas deposits. Unfortunately corruption is rampant and little of this wealth reaches the mass of the population.

      May 21, 2013 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • Soe Naing

      No national interest? Really? U.S. is "Pivoting" toward Asia (again). Deploying soldiers to Australia, reparing old alliance there – to contain China. China hasn't develop one-third of its land mass and people who lived within that area, and yet it is already the second-largest economy. Burma is critical – for now – in China's plan to develop those areas.

      BTW... do you know why US officials are now courting Latin Americans again – just like they do to the Burmese. You guess it right – its again because of China.

      So unless you want your kids to learn Chinese, and bow to the image of Mao, you'd better start brush-up on current events, and why US is doing certain things. (I'm kind of exaggerating a bit here to make a point).

      BTW... I hate some of Ron Paul's followers. So dumb...

      May 22, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Reply
  2. No Muslim Needed

    Muslims vs Buddhists? I pick the Buddhists. Let's help them get rid of the Muslims in their country.

    May 20, 2013 at 7:50 am | Reply
    • Eric

      Thank You.

      May 20, 2013 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • Guest

      Supporting a genocide is not going to help the US either. It will only create more hatred against the US. Right now the muslims in Burma have no problem with the US – but once you justify wiping out an entire ethnic group, they have every right to hate you.

      May 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • Ice

      Really... A call for Genocide this really get past the moderators. Shame on the moderators!!

      May 20, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Ice

      Really... A call for Genocide get past the moderators. Shame on the moderators!!

      May 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • lewtwo

      Excellent point.

      May 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • 3of5

      eradication of vermin. GOOD JOB Myanmar

      May 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • camel

      sure your one of the moderators no other way such a paganism comment could pass through in fact if wishes were horses you could had your own to wipe muslims off the face of the earth but GOD is great and all knowing

      May 21, 2013 at 2:52 am | Reply
    • Robsssss

      Buddhists ?? Really ?? I thought that violence, fighting and conflict was contrary to the Buddhist religion....

      May 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • jack

      Not Muslims only.. Buddhists vs Karen christens. now who would you pick.

      May 21, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Reply
    • moas786

      congrats sir you win the award for the brave moron of the day...with mindset like your's the world would be filled with hate mongers.

      May 22, 2013 at 1:18 am | Reply
  3. Fact

    All over the world, Muslims are whiners. They always complain that they are "oppressed", discriminated", "exploited", "robbed", the world does not understand them, the world does not appreciate them...

    In previous Burmese military government, Muslims do not dare to complain. As soon as Myanmar became a democratic country, it becomes an additional spot in the world for Muslims to complain.

    Muslims converted Buddhists in all of these countries (Afghan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.) to become Muslims by one way (threat) or another (marriage).

    Have you tried asking to have a prayer room for Buddhist or Christian in Muslim countries? You will either be deported or jailed.

    I am just frustrated how naive western governments and people are.

    May 20, 2013 at 9:05 am | Reply
    • Eric

      Thank you

      May 20, 2013 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • Guest

      You're just being naive. Muslims converted Buddhists, just like how Christians converted Jews and muslims in Europe. Forced conversions and hate are not limited to muslims – it is found in every religion. Also, what the Muslims did 500 years ago does not justify doing the same thing to different individuals hundreds of years later. The muslim minority in Burma today has nothing to do with what happened in Afghanistan, Pakistan (different countries with different people) centuries ago. Punishing the Burmese Muslims now is like punishing white people today for all the crimes they committed in the middle ages.

      May 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
      • Ex muslim

        Two evils on this earth which are anti humanity, Islam inits entirity and christian missioneries(not religion) but missioneries, pure evil. WOrld must keel these two things

        May 22, 2013 at 6:47 am |
      • Soe Naing

        @Guest... hmmm... you said it as these extreme actions done by muslims happened centuries ago. US invades Iraq. Iraqi and other muslims perceive US as a Christian country. So in return, they drove out majority of their christian fellow country-men.

        In fact, christian emigration from muslim countries are well known. Maybe they all love western countries. Or maybe they just got persecuted.

        Blowing up Bamiyan statutes come to mind also. Confisticating buddhist-literatures by saudi religious police and whipping poor buddhist workers and deporting them is another.

        May 22, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  4. Eric

    Why didn't you know Muslims of Chittagong committed mass genocide against Rakine (aka) Arakanese in 1942 with the help of British arms? All Rakhine villages were burnt. Arakanese were forced back in land. There was no Rohingya at that time. In fact, Rohingya is a word for Rakhinetha in Bengali Language. It's like some people called an America a Yankee ! ! ! Interestingly, given that porous border, why there is no Rohingya living in Bangladesh even though there are Rakhine in that country ! ! !

    May 20, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
  5. Terry

    I applaud the article for addressing the on-going genocide perpetrated and encouraged by the Burmese government. I find it appalling that this has not been addressed more often before. I am curious that the liberal CNN news organization rarely even has mentioned the slaughter of the hundreds of thousands of Karen civilians over the last several decades. Is it because they have Christian heritage?
    By the way, the Karen people have not been "whiners" because they were and are too busy trying to keep their children alive, probably like other ethnic minorities like the Shan and Kachini people groups that have had their numbers decimated by the Burmese army.
    Has anyone at CNN ever asked why the Mayanmar has the largest child army in Asia?

    May 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • Kyaw Zaw

      where are you sleeping in this few years???

      Not only Army killed Karen, Karen rebel also killed the government soldier.
      child soldier is not only in government side but also in rebel group.

      May 21, 2013 at 1:09 am | Reply
  6. Al-Maghrib

    An honest article from CNN!

    US Govt. needs to take note of thounsands of displaced and murdered Rohyngas and Kachin minorities from the south and the north of Burma, respectively. While the West sings praises of Aung San Suu Kyi, even that criminal has refused to acknowledge ethnic cleansing of minorities in Burma.

    According to UN, the most persecuted ethnic minority in the entire World is Rohyngas of Burma. What is Burmese government doing to correct this????

    May 20, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • Fact

      Another whiner.

      How dare you accuse Aung San Suu Kyi as a criminal?

      She sacrificed her family and her life to bring freedom and democracy to Myanmar.

      Now that Myanmar has a freedom, Muslims are trying to loot the country and tried to establish Organization of Islamic Cooperation inside Myanmar.

      When the Myanmar government rejected the plan, you hijacked Rohingya issue and start attacking Myanmar government in the media while Jihadists are plotting to blow up Myanmar Embassies and anyone against them.

      May 20, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Reply
      • Al-Maghrib

        Is that how you face facts! Calling people whiner who try to raise concern over your beloved country's role in ethnic cleansing of minorities.

        I said before and I'll say it again. Aung San Suu Kyi is worse than a criminal for sitting silently while the Burmese forces and rabid Buddhists were killing Rohyngas and Kachin minorities. See democracy is worth nothing if it comes at the expense of genocide and massacres of minorities. What breakthrough did she achieve? If you ask the minorities they're probably worse off than ever before. She has all the laurels and accolades from the neo-democrats but the country remains deeply divided and ethically fragmented. She has done absolutely nothing to address these issues. This demonstrates her cowardice and her blind jingoism.

        Muslims have nothing to do with the current situation in Burma. It's an epidemic instigated by some "activist" Buddhist monks. They see their future threatened by a percieved Muslim wave of conversion. This is just fear mongering. Muslims of Burma are by far the most tolerant, peaceful and law abiding citizens. These Buddhist terrorists don't let any opportunity to inflame fires of hatered and incite violence against Muslim communities. Sri Lankans are following suite seeing the success of their Burmese co-religionists. Both these countries have extremely peaceful and studious Muslim communities famous for their involvement in trade and commerce. It's a shame that the Buddhists preach non-violence world wide while they go about conducting ethnic cleansing, pogroms and inciting violence in the name of Buddhism in their own countries. Remember I'm not painting Muslims as victims based on whims or personl inclinations. There are pages and pages of reports from nonprofit organizations and even from UN detailing plight of minorities, specially Rohynga Muslims in Burma. What a sad state of affairs. A nation embraces Democracy while marginalizing and victimizing an entire enthinc group. A religion is being touted as non-violent while it refuses to see violence commited in its name.

        May 20, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
      • wily pagan

        Al Maghrib – Tell it to Saudi Arabia and Iran. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

        May 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
      • Shawn

        I totally agree with you.

        May 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Kyaw Zaw

      why don't you go and ask Saudi or Pakistan to stop killing?

      Beheading is not approved in Burma, but only in Muslim countries like Saudi.
      all Women can drive in Burma, but not in Saudi.
      Women can go alone without male company in Burma, but not in Saudi.
      Burmese don't splash the woman face with acid, but only in Muslim countries like Pakistan.
      Burmese don't destroy the world Heritage like Afghanstan destroyed the Buddhist Statue.
      Burmese allow all the religion to build their temple including muslim Mosque in most of the city, but not in Saudi.
      What else I miss to write??? a lot, right??

      don't be like a hypocrite.
      Just go back and find out the history before you talked about Bengali "u called Rohingya".
      And you have to accept "all the terrorist around the world are muslim, not buddhist".

      May 21, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
    • Soe Naing


      First of all, let's start by saying that as an Burmese American citizen, with many Burmese American friends who were accepted by the US as refugee, I want Burmese government to recognize Rohingya as citizens – just like it accepted ethnic Chinese as citizens in recent decades.

      However, you must realize that some of your co-religionists are doing the same thing that Burmese government is doing. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc... do those countries grant citizenship to some of its residents? Some of them have been there for generations also. And some of them are muslims even. And in case those are not muslims, can those "foreigners" build churches, or Buddhist religious shrines or house of worship, or Hindu temple? What happened if they "Justly" protest against slave-labor? They got deported en-mass. Look at Pakistan, or Egypt. Or Afganistan when your fellow muslims blew up religious shrines revered by Buddhists around the world?

      Again, Rohingya should be made Burmese citizens with full-rights. But you have to respect other religious beliefs – even if you believe your religion is the best. And you have to speak out against injustice done by your fellow muslims. Only then, other Burmese will truly see Rohingya's as peaceful...

      May 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  7. Ricksta

    Myanmar should just demand the US release its political prisoners first.

    May 20, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Reply
  8. Al-Maghrib


    I haven't seen such wide scale and blatant persecution of minorities by Saudi Arabia and Iran. There might be isolated incidents but nothing even comes close to what Burmese people have done to Rohyngas and Kachin minorities. Unless they take resposibility for such acts and stop playing the blame game, no corrective action can be expected from them. This is insanity being covered by blindness. Sad sad state of affairs.

    May 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply
    • Soe Naing

      Can you build Buddhist pagoda's in Saudi Arabia or some of the richer Islamic countries who are now crying loud? You can't even bring non-Islamic religious literatures for private use by non-muslim workers – especially workers from non-western countries.

      Do they grant citizenship to non-muslim foreigners – even after several generations?

      If enough of you speak-up against your own society's wrong-doings, others will know that you are a fair people. And they will be more accepting of you.

      May 22, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Reply
    • Shawn

      Did you hear what happened in UK. An innocent victom was brutally murdered on the street of his own country in the name of Islam.

      The suspect was born and raised in that country with all the assistance that UK government has provided. Does it sound familiar to you?

      Boston bombing suspect received all the walfare and support that US government has provided.

      I hope all the governments will re-evaluate who they accept to enter the country.

      May 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  9. Ferhat Balkan

    The UN describes the Rohingya as the most persecuted minority in the world. Their plight has been going on for decades, yet most of the Western world has largely ignored them. Most people around the world don't even know who the Rohingya are. The so called democracy in Myanmar is turning a blind eye to what would most call a systematic killing of a minority group. Even the local security groups are involved in the persecution and oppression of the Rohingya people. Thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and thousands more were refused entry. Those who do make it across the border, their troubles are far from over. They live in makeshift tents and their existence is not even recognized by Bangladesh, so they're ignored as 'unregistered refugees'. They have no electricity, drinking water, not allowed to work, no doctor or school to go to. Malnutrition and disease has taken hold. The international community has done next to nothing to help these poor people.

    May 20, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Reply
    • Kyaw Zaw

      The whole word including you doesn't know who Rohingya is.
      keep them in your house and your country if you can.

      May 21, 2013 at 4:28 am | Reply
      • Al

        Y do u hate Muslims? email me ur answer (pls be specific) and maybe we have a fruitful discussion

        May 22, 2013 at 6:48 am |
  10. Pezh

    Where is the Arab Spring. Think Arab spring only goes as far as the Elite wants it to go. Whats the difference between them and Syrians????????????? Where the hell are you Saudi's (rapist, child abusers) Qatar or the Al Qaeda's new Boss Israel.
    I've seen Human beings!!!!!!! infants thrown in fire!!! I've seen them afterwords, Satellite pictures showing ethnic cleansing. They don't have any natural resources so be it.

    May 20, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  11. hypatia

    Let Burma or whatever the hell it wants to call itself this week take care of its own damned problems.

    May 20, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  12. Chris

    I think President Obama has to establish being more forthcoming about issues at home before he can claim to have moral high ground over any other administration. I am not condoning the burmese oppression of its people and the atrocities and injustices inherent in its ruling parties over the decades. In order to lead one needs to be a leader through example first. It saddens me that although my views at large are more liberal than deluded i.e republican, President Obama has let me to believe that he too is more political puppet as opposed to a revolutionary agent of change or truth. Perhaps some hard introspection is required before passing judgements on others who may well be deserving of said judgement.

    May 20, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  13. Dinesh

    Someone finally does to muslims what muslims do to others. Thank you Mayanmar. Continue your good work.

    May 20, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Reply
    • Sam

      Yes, we can, and we would continue doing.

      May 21, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  14. Jocho Johnson

    I thought the Aung San Suu Kui messiah woman was supposed to save Burma and turn it into a US style Democracy in exchange for all the handouts she took from the US taxpayer. What happened?

    May 21, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • Soe Naing

      hmm. really? How many hundreds of millions of dollars do you think she got? If I'm ASSK or Thein Sein, I'll ask 1,000 more. US got it cheap in Burma – to make China worried about its investments and its grand-plans.

      May 22, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Reply
  15. Ex muslim

    Fk ISlam, Fk muhemmed, FK allah, muslims are caancerous pathology to humanity, Humanity must get rid off of Islam for once and good. Islam is not religion, its anti humanity, anti women, anti non muslim violent radical ideology. Keeel Islam and keel those who support islam.

    May 22, 2013 at 6:44 am | Reply
    • Al

      Y do u hate Muslims? email me ur answer (pls be specific) and maybe we have a fruitful discussion

      May 22, 2013 at 6:49 am | Reply
  16. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Burma, like India's North-Eastern states bordering Bangladesh is being swamped by ILLEGAL MUSLIM Immigrants from Bangaldesh which is breaking in its seems with its EXPLODING MUSLIM population even as there is a phenomenal decline in the much more educated Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists.

    Al this talk of HUMAN RIGHTS for these ILLEGALS who are forcibly taking over PEACEFUL BURMESE & INDIAN Hindu, Buddhist and Christian lands is MERE BS. No wonder even NOBEL Laureate & HR activist Aung San Suu Kyi is quiet on this, so-called abuse.

    They just need to be DEPORTED to where they came from........THAT's the ONE & ONLY SOLUTION TO THIS PROBLEM.

    And, no wonder this opinion appeared in FAREED ZAKARIA-GPS, given that Mr. Zakaria is trying heaven & earth to paint the whole world as biased, discrimnatory against his worldwide Muslim flock.

    May 22, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • Soe Naing

      Rohingya needs to be given Burmese citizenship. The only non-violence way. Burmese government cannot win this issue – they can only delay it. So its better now than later.

      May 22, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Reply
  17. vistar hornbill

    It will take time for Myanmar to fully settle dowan a democracy. The most important step has already been accomplished by Thein Sein, and that was very significantl in Myanmar's political metamorphosis – from an iron hand cruel military dictatorship to what it is today. Myanmar will further evolve into something we never have imagine just 24 months ago.

    The are loads of other moe pressing social issues that need immediate action, common issues like jobs creation, the economy, housing, healthcare (non-existent 3 years ago) schools, etc

    The Rohingya matter is nothing new, and it is not entirely a Myanmar problem. The Rohingyas are really Bangladeshis. They were never part of Myanmar's legal racial groups. Which means Bangladesh have to be involved in resettling these stateless people and not leave it entirely to Myanmar.

    I have worked with many educated Myanmarese, engineers and doctors, and they all agree that President will achieve what he set out to do, before he retires soon. It is a tall order for him, especially tackling corruption among the military and croonism in the government, but I am confident President Thein can manage because he has the backing of many powerful Myanmarese in the country.

    May 23, 2013 at 12:35 am | Reply

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