WASHINGTON – President Obama’s upcoming Saturday trip to Myanmar, the nation previously known as Burma, is intended to encourage the continuing democratic transition of what was once pariah state. But the way it is now structured may guarantee a lost opportunity instead.
For more than sixty years, resource-rich Myanmar stagnated under violent, repressive and corrupt generals, even as its neighbors embraced free markets and prospered. Then in 2010, the country began to change. Nobel prize winner and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. A new, more open constitution was adopted. The first elections in two decades were held. Follow-on by-elections earlier this year resulted in the main opposition party winning 43 of the 44 legislative seats they contested.
President Obama clearly hopes that this first-ever visit by an American president will give reform further momentum, as well as highlight what the administration believes is a key success in its larger “strategic pivot” to Asia. But while Suu Kyi has endorsed the visit, there are many who worry it is premature.
Myanmar has hundreds of thousands of “displaced persons.” Mostly ethnic minorities, they are the ongoing targets of forced labor, human trafficking and the use of systematic rape and sexual violence as a means of control. The UN considers them among the world’s most persecuted peoples. In the Kachin, the country’s northernmost state, the national army is attacking Kachin soldiers and villagers, reportedly perpetrating some of the worst human rights abuses on earth.
The White House’s current schedule is for the president to meet with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet for all of Suu Kyi’s heroism and importance as a leader in the pro-democracy movement, she is, like President Thein Sein, a member of the Burman urban elite. To confer solely with these two and neglect the powerful rural ethnic minorities that comprise up to half of Myanmar’s population sends the wrong message.
Ethnic minorities provided the pro-democracy movement’s military resistance capacity. They kept past totalitarian leaders at bay for decades. Their voice is critical now for achieving enduring peace, democracy and stability in this troubled land. The president’s advisers should request that ethnic leaders have a seat at the table during the upcoming visit. Not to do so would set a low and self-defeating moral standard for America as it focuses its attention on this strategically vital region.
Work for rapprochement will naturally encounter resistance. The hate and mistrust between non-Burman minorities and ethnic Burmans who control the cities run deep. The Burman elites are outnumbered. Yet if the world has learned anything from our dubious economic development attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that excluding key ethnic stakeholders from a political process heightens conflict and undercuts reform.
The maddening fact is if the many ethnic groups were working together, Myanmar could become a powerhouse in Southeast Asia. It enjoys immense natural resources and dominance of international trade routes to and from south central China and the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Its rich agricultural lands and massive work force are appallingly underutilized. Both Burmans and non-Burmans alike would be vastly richer if they were to collaborate in developing this potential. Instead, tragically, for more than sixty years they have squandered that promise, too often in a futile fight for control of those very resources and trade routes. Yet, knowing the country intimately, as we both do, we believe that in the context of mutual profit and economic growth, secured by lightly armed police, gradual accommodation and reconciliation can emerge.
This is precisely where President Obama and the United States can play a transformative role – by urging all parties to embrace cooperative economic development. The president should use his meetings to advance partnering between Burmans and other ethnic groups. He should encourage the generals, the democracy advocates and the minorities to join in manageable development zones where trust can be slowly grown and security reform models can be developed. We believe that with the help of international observers, governance in these zones can evolve into responsible ethnic state governance that secures the rights of all.
Fresh off his reelection, President Obama is in the political and moral position to promote a new comity in this strategically placed country. Respect for all peoples is among the “self-evident” truths that Americans espouse. Not to include Myanmar’s many ethnic groups in Mr. Obama’s discussions on this trip or a plan for hope and change in that nation would be lost opportunities – for President Obama, the people of Myanmar, and the world as a whole.