What Obama should tell Myanmar’s President

Thein Sein

By Maung Zarni

This is an excerpt of a longer analysis article originally published on Asia Times Online

Washington needs to be clear-eyed about the fact that Myanmar’s government is still committing widespread crimes against humanity and other mass atrocities, particularly against both Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities such as the Shans and Kachins.

Last week, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic released the findings of its three-year study of “war crimes” committed by three serving generals in eastern Myanmar, including a powerful minister in President Thein Sein’s government.

In the last two-and-a-half years, there has been an alarming and sustained rise in violence, death and destruction against Rohingyas in western Myanmar – so much so that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the foremost leading institutions dealing with cases of global mass atrocities, recently issued a clarion call to stop the unfolding genocide in Myanmar.

At a Harvard University conference held last week on the worsening plight of the Rohingyas, Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen weighed in on the subject by framing Myanmar’s persecution of over 1 million Rohingyas as a “slow genocide” unfolding over nearly 40 years, a far more sinister process of state-sponsored intentional destruction of a people than the Holocaust, Rwanda’s genocide or the Khmer Rouge’s mass atrocities in Cambodia.

Notwithstanding legal and policy debates over the terminologies of the atrocities, including slow genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or just plain war crimes, it is unmistakable that large scale mass atrocities are being committed against various ethnic and religious minorities by both official government troops and non-state actors such as the country’s ultra-racist monks and Nazi-inspired ethnic Rakhine extremists.

In Washington, a typical American confidence about how to facilitate and support Myanmar’s transition from an outright military dictatorship to a more benign entity has given way to policy confusion, uncertainty and defensiveness. As Obama’s government ponders why and how the top-down reforms it previously strongly endorsed but now recognize have stalled, it would do well to review the four biggest challenges to engaging Thein Sein’s essentially military-led government.

Needless to say, there is no possibility of the US reversing its current unconditional engagement policy and support for the “reformist” clique in Naypyidaw, who are believed to regularly congregate in Thein Sein’s office.

However, if US policy is to advance its hidden and official policy objectives, including the severing of Myanmar’s ties with North Korea, promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights, and economic liberalization, as well as counterbalancing China’s influence and role in the country, Washington’s engagement needs to be strategically re-calibrated during Obama’s visit.

Tough talking points

First, Obama should make it clear to Thein Sein that as chairman of Myanmar’s National Defense and Security Council, the country’s de facto ruling body, he must reign in and stop immediately the Armed Forces’ continuing war crimes against the Shan and Kachin ethnic minorities. Any claims that Thein Sein, an ex-general and Prime Minister under the former ruling junta, does not control the military’s Central Command should be diplomatically refuted as disingenuous.

Second, the US should put a moratorium on any and all military-to-military engagements between the Pentagon and the Myanmar state security sector, including workshops and training programs in human rights and civil-military relations.

The Pentagon, with its own atrocious record of human-rights violations in the name of the “global war on terror” is neither the most obvious choice for the task nor best equipped for the job. Leave that to some other credible organizations such as Asian Human Rights Commission, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic or the Global Minorities Alliance.

Third, the Obama Administration, represented US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize winning expert on genocides and the author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, should entertain the idea of punitive measures against Myanmar’s genocidaires, including against top-ranking government officials as well as communal Rakhine leaders.

If Washington is not prepared to push for UN Security Council authorization for the referral of Myanmar’s genocidal military leaders and ex-leaders, including the “reformist” Thein Sein, it should at the least call for the revision of the racist 1982 Citizenship Act, which serves the legal justification for Rohingya persecution.

It should also consider curbing its present ambassador in Rangoon, Derek Mitchell, who reliable sources say is pressuring Rohingya leaders and community elders to accept Thein Sein government’s official erasure of the former’s voluntary ethnic identity and adopt the government-imposed label “Bengali” – a term that effectively indicates that Rohingyas do not belong in Myanmar.

In a move widely popular with the public, the US Treasury recently blacklisted ex-Brigadier Aung Thaung, chair of the Finance Committee for the military’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and a very powerful confidante of the now officially retired despot Senior General Than Shwe, on the grounds he has been directly involved in recent violent campaigns against Myanmar’s Muslims. The Obama Administration should also propose and lead similar punitive moves using established global justice mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court or Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Fourth and finally, as a point of departure from its current policy of unwavering support for Thein Sein’s government (and its “less-corrupt” super-ministers and “cleaner” cronies), Washington needs to realign its long-term strategic interests, both commercial and strategic, with those of the public, including farmers, laborers, ethnic and religious minorities and genuine – as opposed to proxy – opposition parties.

The US’s short-sighted preference for supporting elite-led quasi-transitional processes in the Middle East and former Soviet Union has already boomeranged. The sustained popularity of Vladimir Putin in Russia and the widespread and palpable hatred of the US on the Arab Street spring to mind. Washington should recognize that Myanmar’s persecuted and oppressed ethnic and religious minorities – not only the Rohingyas but also the Kachin, Mon, Shan, Karen and others – would like to see a more decisively pro-democratic and pro-human rights US policy and practice in Myanmar.

The country’s various oppressed constituencies are intensely resentful of both meek, mild and ineffectual UN officials and China’s narrow interests and slanted policies in favor of their common oppressor in Naypyidaw. They still hold out hope that the US’s involvement and pressure on the country’s current military leaders will eventually bring genuine democratic reforms and an end to decades of internal conflict. For that to happen, Obama must change his previous tact of unconditional engagement, beginning with a strong message to Naypyidaw that current trends and practices will be met with renewed punitive measures.

zarni profile pix for global minority alliance (2)A dissident in exile, Dr Zarni or Maung Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition. He recently joined Harvard Medical School as a lecturer specializing in racism, violence and genocides and holds a Visiting Fellowship at the Civil Society and
Human Security Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science. He blogs at www.maungzarni.net and tweets at @drzarni.

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