Per­ils of Good Diplo­macy

Po­lit­i­cal re­forms have come at the cost of se­vere hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions in Myan­mar. How long can the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ig­nore such atroc­i­ties in the fa­vor of en­gaged diplo­matic ties?

Southasia - - NEIGHBOR MYANMAR - By Taha Ke­har

Diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Myan­mar and the U.S. were es­tab­lished in 1947. De­spite an ini­tial ea­ger­ness to main­tain strong bi­lat­eral ties, both coun­tries have failed to demon­strate a con­sis­tent fo­cus on in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy. At­tempts to con­sol­i­date po­lit­i­cal re­la­tions have been ex­ac­er­bated by Gen­eral Ne Win’s coup that was geared to- ward a so­cial­ist agenda and eco­nomic iso­la­tion. How­ever, over the last two years, a grave la­cuna in for­eign pol­icy has been filled through com­mend­able po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­forms. The re­lease of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers such as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is a glar­ing tes­ta­ment of the restora­tion of democ­racy in Myan­mar.

Rec­og­niz­ing th­ese ef­forts to im- prove re­la­tions, Pres­i­dent Obama wel­comed for­mer mil­i­tary com­man­der and Pres­i­dent Thein Sein to the White House for bi­lat­eral talks on May 20, 2013. Thein Sein is the first Burmese politi­cian to visit the White House since 1966. The grow­ing im­prove­ment in po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Myan­mar was the key talk­ing point in fa­vor of strength­en­ing ties be­tween

the two coun­tries. Pres­i­dent Obama com­mended the Burmese Pres­i­dent for a com­mit­ment to­wards democ­racy. How­ever, he ex­pressed con­cerns about the eth­nic ten­sions and dis­crim­i­na­tion against Mus­lims in the re­gion. What is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing to note is Obama’s de­ci­sion to re­fer to the coun­try as Myan­mar - the name adopted by its mil­i­tary rulers in 1989 - rather than Burma. While this move stands the risk of con­don­ing the long-stand­ing wave of mil­i­tancy and eth­nic strife, it also serves as recog­ni­tion of the coun­try’s tur­bu­lent po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

Demo­cratic prin­ci­ples can only be fos­tered if a pro­gres­sive at­ti­tude is adopted and a co­her­ent frame­work of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial re­forms is in­tro­duced. Thein Sein ac­knowl­edged the nu­mer­ous chal­lenges faced by the ad­min­is­tra­tion to fa­cil­i­tate a smooth tran­si­tion to­wards democ­racy. Changes to any demo­cratic sys­tems in­volve risk-tak­ing and a con­stant process of trial and er­ror.

Al­though the Burmese ad­min­is­tra­tion can be given the ben­e­fit of the doubt, this is a care­fully dis­guised ex­cuse for dis­crep­an­cies in main­tain­ing good gov­er­nance. The lengthy process of demo­cratic change can­not jus­tify the hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions trig­gered by an un­pre­dictable and volatile po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. Pro­longed cease­fires with the Karen eth­nic mi­nor­ity and the lib­erty given to the army to at­tack eth­nic rebels in Kachin demon­strate the re­luc­tance of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion to in­duce pos­i­tive change. The road to­wards democ­racy is the cor­ner­stone for strength­en­ing for­eign re­la­tions be­tween the U.S. and Myan­mar. If the Burmese ad­min­is­tra­tion were to com­pro­mise on this fun­da­men­tal po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ple, no amount of good diplo­macy will suc­ceed in restor­ing bi­lat­eral ties.

Pres­i­dent Thein Sein’s visit to the U.S. serves as a bea­con of hope in the South Asian con­text. Pub­lic opin­ion in the West deems South Asia to be a volatile re­gion. A com­mit­ment to en­gen­der demo­cratic val­ues into a re­gion dom­i­nated by eth­nic vi­o­lence will en­cour­age peace-mak­ing ini­tia­tives and put an end to po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­ci­sion to re­ha­bil­i­tate Myan­mar has, how­ever, been crit­i­cized as a reck­less step. The coun­try has wit­nessed sev­eral decades of mil­i­tary rule and will need time to climb out of its predica­ment. In­ter­na­tional groups and hu­man rights ac­tivists have voiced reser­va­tions about the ex­tent to which eth­nic cleans­ing against Mus­lims in Myan­mar will come to a halt. Over 40 Mus­lims were killed in cen­tral Myan­mar, only in the last month. Po­lit­i­cal up­heavals be­tween Bud­dhists and Mus­lims in the Rakhine state have re­sulted in the dis­place­ment of count­less Ro­hingya Mus­lims. Repub­li­cans have been skep­ti­cal of Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­ci­sion as re­wards can­not be given to the Burmese ad­min­is­tra­tion if it can­not bring progress to mit­i­gate the risks of bad gov­er­nance.

The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion has failed to ac­count for var­i­ous as­pects of its bi­lat­eral re­la­tions with Myan­mar. De­scrib­ing the re­gion as a suc­cess story that re­quires care­ful at­ten­tion, Pres­i­dent Obama has adopted a nar­row ap­proach to the is­sue. While the Burmese ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to re­lease po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and curb re­stric­tions on me­dia cen­sor­ship are pos­i­tive steps, it would be risky to jus­tify U.S. for­eign pol­icy changes on such pre­texts.

Eth­nic vi­o­lence in Myan­mar has re­sulted in po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity. On March 22, 2013, a state of emer­gency was im­posed in Meik­tila, a small town in cen­tral ‘Myan­mar’, fol­low­ing a spate of anti-Mus­lim ri­ots. Armed Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist demon­stra­tors drove the Mus­lim com­mu­nity out of Meik­tila. Anti-Mus­lim ag­i­ta­tion in the re­gion can be likened to the eth­nic cleans­ing against Mus­lims in Bos­nia dur­ing the early 1990s. They stand the risk of un­der­min­ing the scope for de­vel­op­ment in Myan­mar as most deep­wa­ter ports and en­ergy projects funded by In­dia and China are con­cen­trated in cities where an­ar­chy pre­vails.

In­dia has funded de­vel­op­ment projects in Sit­twe, a deep­wa­ter port lo­cated north of the off­shore nat­u­ral gas fields, as a part of its ‘Look East’ strat­egy. Th­ese ini­tia­tives are geared to­wards im­prov­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity be­tween East In­dia and Myan­mar through the con­struc­tion of sea, river and road routes. How­ever, Sit­twe is billed as a danger­ous city where eth­nic vi­o­lence against Mus­lims has been in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to man­age. Eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in the port city will be se­verely com­pro­mised if Mus­lims seek the as­sis­tance of ji­hadist groups to com­bat mil­i­tancy. In a sim­i­lar vein, China’s strate­gic in­vest­ments in the re­gion are at a greater risk. China has been de­vel­op­ing a land ac­ces­si­ble port to ri­val In­dia’s deep­wa­ter port in Sit­twe. It has con­structed oil and gas pipe­lines to trans­port en­ergy from Kyauk­phyu to the Yun­nan prov­ince to pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive route to trans­port oil to China. Since the in­ci­dence of eth­nic vi­o­lence in Kyauk­phyu is also par­tic­u­larly high, the fate of this pro­ject re­mains un­cer­tain.

For­eign di­rect in­vest­ment from In­dia and China has en­abled Myan­mar to ig­nore protests from ASEAN and the United Na­tions about the on­go­ing vi­o­lence. But if ji­hadist mil­i­tancy is al­lowed to in­fil­trate the po­lit­i­cal sphere, In­dia and China’s strate­gic in­ter­ests would be threat­ened.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­ci­sion to pro­vide pre-ma­ture sup­port to Myan­mar could po­ten­tially be a means of thwart­ing th­ese in­ter­ests. It is an ob­vi­ous at­tempt to pro­mote the sec­tional goals of the U.S. un­der the guise of im­prov­ing diplo­macy and democ­racy. Taha Ke­har is a blog­ger on so­cial is­sues and has pre­vi­ously worked for a me­dia mag­a­zine. He is cur­rently pur­su­ing a de­gree in Law at the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies.

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