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U.S.

wanted Burma to model democratic


change, but its not turning out that way
Women and children wait for medical care at
the makeshift Aung clinic, which serves many Rohingya Muslims with a few staf giving
free medical care. (Paula Bronsteinfor !he Washington Post"
B# A$$%& '(W&$ A$) )A*%) $A+AM,RA -uly . at /01/ PM
RANGOON, Burma President Obama recently singled out Burma as a U.S.
foreign policy ictory a country t!at !ad emerged from decades of military rule
and turned to"ard t!e #est, t!an$s in part to American diplomacy.
%f Burma succeeds, t!e president told #est Point cadets recently, &"e "ill !ae
gained a ne" partner "it!out !aing fired a s!ot.' But t"o years after Obama made
a !istoric isit to t!e Sout!east Asian nation, t!e ac!ieement is in (eopardy.
Burma)s goernment !as crac$ed do"n on t!e media. *!e parliament isconsidering
la"s t!at could restrict religious freedom. And reered opposition leader Aung San
Suu +yi, "!o "elcomed Obama to !er !ome in ,-.,, remains constitutionally
barred from running for president as t!e country !eads into a piotal election ne/t
year.
*!e situation is most dire in Burma)s "estern reac!es, "!ere more t!an
.--,--- Ro!ingya 0uslims are liing as irtual prisoners, "it! little access to
!ealt! care and food. *!e fast1deteriorating conditions prompted *om2s O(3a
4uintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for !uman rig!ts, to say in
April t!at t!ere is an &element of genocide' in t!e Ro!ingyas) plig!t.
*!e setbac$s !ae raised t!e sta$es for Obama)s sc!eduled Noember isit to a
regional conference in Burma, during "!ic! t!e administration !ad !oped to
s!o"case t!e country)s progress as part of its strategic &rebalance' to"ard Asia.
No" een some of Obama)s allies on 5apitol 6ill !ae begun to 7uestion "!et!er
t!e administration !as moed too 7uic$ly to embrace Burma)s leaders!ip.
#e !ae a moral obligation despite t!e political benefits' of improing ties, said
Rep. 8osep! 5ro"ley 9:1N.;.<, "!o !as introduced a bill to lin$ additional U.S. aid
to !uman rig!ts reforms. &#e)re for !aing a relations!ip "it! Burma, but only if
t!ey respect !uman rig!ts and t!e rule of la".'
A woman holds her son as she waits for rations of rice from the U.N. World Food Program. (Paula
Bronstein/for The Washington Post)
*o be sure, Burma is no longer t!e dictators!ip it "as fie years ago, "!en it
allo"ed no free elections or public dissent. *!e goernment !as conditionally
released !undreds of political prisoners, abolis!ed censors!ip and permitted a
democratically elected parliament. *!e president)s spo$esman, ;e 6tut, said critics
are not giing t!e country enoug! credit for "!at it !as done.
U.S. officials said Obama "ill ma$e clear to President *!ein Sein t!at !is
goernment must address t!e !uman rig!ts issues and allo" a truly democratic
election in ,-.= if it e/pects to maintain good relations "it! t!e United States.
As far as Burma)s come in t!e last t!ree years, t!ey)re getting to t!e really !ard
stuff no",' said *om 0alino"s$i, assistant secretary of state for democracy, !uman
rig!ts and labor. &*!at)s "!y t!ere are some acute problems and legitimate fears
about prospects for full success.'
A change in attitude
Burma, also $no"n as 0yanmar, sits in a strategic location bet"een 5!ina and
%ndia. >rom .?@, on"ard, it "as ruled by secretie, brutal military regimes. *!e
United States imposed stiff economic sanctions after t!e Burmese military $illed
t!ousands during a student uprising in .?AA.
But by ,-.-, t!e Obama administration began to see signs t!at Burma)s generals
"ere loo$ing to open up t!e country and moe a"ay from t!eir close ties "it!
5!ina and Nort! +orea. *!e generals released Suu +yi "!o !ad "on t!e .??.
Nobel Peace PriBe for !er pro1democracy struggle from !ouse arrest.
By ,-.., &t!e prospects for progress "ere better t!an at any time in a generation,'
former secretary of state 6illary Rod!am 5linton "rote in !er recent memoir,
&6ard 5!oices,' "!ic! deotes a c!apter to Burma. S!e "rote t!at &t!ose early days
of flic$ering progress and uncertain !ope remain a !ig! point of my time as
Secretary.'
*!e State :epartment began a policy of matc!ing &action for action,' re"arding t!e
Burmese goernment)s reforms "it! a gradual easing of sanctions.
5linton "ent to Burma in ,-... *!e follo"ing year, Suu +yi "as elected to
parliament, and Obama became t!e first sitting U.S. president to isit.
Since t!en, Burma !as c!anged rapidly. >or decades t!e country retained t!e aura
of a fading colonial outpost, "it! crumbling buildings and fe" #estern goods
aailable. No" in Rangoon, t!e country)s commercial capital t!at is also $no"n as
;angon, construction cranes compete for attention on t!e s$yline "it! t!e !istoric
gold S!"edagon Pagoda. Restaurants sering Australian tenderloin and sus!i are
opening, as are 0ercedes and 8aguar dealers!ips.
*!e
country
of more
t!an
== millio
n people
remains
one of t!e
poorest
in t!e
"orld.
5!inese
inestment far outpaces t!at of t!e United
States about C.D billion compared "it! about C,DE million. #estern companies
!ae been slo" to arrie because of infrastructure problems and a lac$ of 7ualified
"or$ers.
Military2s gri3 endures
:espite t!e political opening, t!e Burmese military still !olds e/traordinary po"er
under a constitution t!at guarantees t!e armed forces a 7uarter of t!e seats in
parliament and reseres $ey ministry posts for officers.
Burmese and foreign !uman rig!ts actiists "orry t!at t!e goernment !as slo"ed
or een reersed its progress to"ard democracy.
%n !is ,-., meeting "it! Obama, *!ein Sein made .. commitments to implement
additional democratic reforms and !uman rig!ts protections. But actiists and U.S.
congressional leaders say !is goernment !as deliered on fe" of t!em.
>or e/ample, t!e Burmese president pledged to reac! a cease1fire in predominantly
5!ristian +ac!in state, one of seeral areas of t!is ma(ority1Budd!ist country "!ere
armed et!nic groups !ae long clas!ed "it! t!e military.
Since a cease1fire in t!e state fell apart t!ree years ago, t!e Burmese military !as
burned c!urc!es and destroyed illages, actiists say. *!e !uman rig!ts group
>ortify Rig!ts recently alleged t!at t!e military !as tortured more t!an @- ciilians
t!ere in t!e past t!ree years. *!e goernment !as denied t!e torture allegations.
A mon holds a !egging !owl ne"t to a large
construction site. (Paula Bronstein/for The
Washington Post)
#ommuters head home from wor !$ !us.
(Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)
0ean"!ile, t!e country)s political situation !as become complicated by t!e rise of a
moement of e/treme Budd!ist nationalists, "!o are freer to operate in t!e less
repressie enironment.
Nationalist mon$s see$ing to protect t!eir religion from t!e spread of %slam are
pus!ing for la"s t!at "ould bloc$ interfait! marriage and ma$e it more difficult for
people to conert. *!e mon$s bac$ed by a petition signed by t!ousands of
citiBens "ant non1Budd!ist men to conert before marrying Budd!ist "omen or
face .- years in prison. *!e la"s are being drafted in parliament "it! t!e support of
t!e goernment, according to ;e 6tut.
*!en t!ere is t!e matter of t!e Ro!ingya, a long1persecuted 0uslim minority "!o
are not considered citiBens alt!oug! many !ae lied in t!e country for
generations. %n ,-.,, t!ousands of Ro!ingya "ere displaced after t!eir illages
"ere torc!ed by Budd!ists angry t!at 0uslim men !ad allegedly raped a Budd!ist
"oman.
*"o
years
later,
more
t!an
.--,---
Ro!ingya
lie in
oercro"ded camps. 6ealt!
conditions "orsened recently after t!e goernment suspended :octors #it!out
Borders and ot!er aid groups follo"ing t"o more rounds of iolence, alt!oug!
some !umanitarian "or$ers !ae begun returning.
;e 6tut said t!at long1running peace tal$s continue "it! et!nic militias, including
t!ose in +ac!in state, and t!at t!e goernment is trying to ease tensions bet"een
Ro!ingya 0uslims and Budd!ists.
6e said #as!ington s!ould s!o" more appreciation for Burma)s reforms, "!ic!
include opening up t!e goernment1dominated economy and allo"ing priate
ne"spapers to operate.
%ohing$a girls &um& drining water at the 'ar
Paing cam& outside (ittwe. (Paula Bronstein/for
The Washington Post)
A$e A$e sits in the middle of a road selling
shrim& at a local maret to hel& her famil$
outside %angoon. (Paula Bronstein/for The
Washington Post)
Some people in 5ongress !ae tried to s!ift t!e goal posts again and again instead
of recogniBing our progress,' ;e 6tut said.
Still, t!e fragility of t!e reforms !as been underlined in recent mont!s as
aut!orities arrested seeral local reporters on "!at rig!ts groups call politically
motiated c!arges t!at include defamation and reealing state secrets. *!e
goernment !as also instituted tig!ter press registration la"s.
*!ere are a lot of people in #as!ington "!o t!in$ t!ere is t!is great success story'
in Burma, said :aid S. 0at!ieson, senior researc!er on Burma for 6uman Rig!ts
#atc!. &But t!ere are a lot of indicators t!at t!ey)re !eading sout! ery 7uic$ly.'
Obama plans to raise concerns about t!e Ro!ingya and t!e goernment)s
unfulfilled promises "!en !e isits Burma, a #!ite 6ouse official said.
#!en "e tal$ about our democratiBation agenda in Asia, Burma is e/ample
number one,' t!e official said, spea$ing on t!e condition of anonymity because of
diplomatic sensitiities. &%t)s a big play, but it)s a ris$y play. #e $no" t!at. And
t!at)s "!y "e are continuing to inest in our relations!ip.'
Political activism
Suu +yi)s party launc!ed a petition drie to remoe a part of t!e constitution t!at
gies t!e military eto po"er oer constitutional c!anges t!at could open t!e door
to broader reforms.
On a s"eltering day in do"nto"n Rangoon, olunteers sat outside t!e party)s
!ead7uarters collecting signatures, an actiity t!at "ould !ae been un!eard of in
t!e days of t!e military (unta.
)n the im&o*erished +liang Tha$a area outside %angoon, home to man$ factor$ worers, &eo&le sign a
&etition organi-ed !$ Aung (an (uu .$i/s National 0eague for 'emocrac$ to allow constitutional changes.
(Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)
0usic praising Suu +yi blasted from loudspea$ers. Nobody seemed to be afraid of
spea$ing out, alt!oug! one man "!o "as "earing a pro1democracy *1s!irt as$ed
t!at !e not be p!otograp!ed.
One democracy campaigner, Fin 0ar Aung, said s!e and ot!er actiists "ere
!arassed "it! anonymous te/t messages and deat! t!reats after t!ey criticiBed t!e
proposed interfait!1marriage la". S!e "orries t!at t!e petition drie "on)t "or$
because t!e military does not "ant to fully gie up po"er.
#e t!in$ t!eir reforms !ae stagnated,' s!e said. &#e t!in$ liberaliBation is oer
and t!e regime doesn)t "ant to gie po"er t!roug! democratic elections.'
Na$amura reported from #as!ington.
+!ine *!urein in Rangoon contributed
to t!is report.
Annie 'owen is !he Post2s %ndia 4ureau chief and has re3orted for the Post
throughout 5outh Asia and the Middle &ast.