Mr. President, Put Myanmar’s People First
By Patricia DeBoer
This month, Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. President to visit Myanmar (Burma), the strongest endorsement yet of the country's reform efforts in the face of deep challenges. There is no doubt tremendous change has taken place in Myanmar, as reflected in an array of political and legislative reforms, including the election of opposition parties’ members – including Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – to the newly formed government. The U.S. has lifted decades of sanctions, and has normalized its relationship with this once isolated country, one that has repelled any kind of scrutiny for 50 years.
We at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) welcome these developments – even as they come against a backdrop of violence that threatens to destabilize Myanmar once more. But as an organization that has quietly provided humanitarian assistance and other work on the ground since 2005 we wonder what comes next?
The U.S. has yet to articulate a clear policy that will guide its interactions with Myanmar. This lack has led to broad speculation across the region about the real intentions of the United States. Is it engaging because its businesses fear being left out of lucrative resource deals? Is it part of an effort to hedge in China, by extending American military and economic alliances in Asia? Or does it stem from a genuine desire to bring peace and prosperity to the people of Myanmar?
The President should use his trip to start framing a clear policy aimed at peace and reconciliation, and that upon his return, he begin putting it into action. Two initiatives must be the cornerstones of that policy:
First, the U.S. needs to show by its actions that it is in Myanmar for the right reasons: putting the needs of ordinary people first. This means prioritizing the very real and pressing concerns of citizens -- land, livelihood, healthcare, education, and a basic sense of security – in providing increased U.S. government aid.
It also means setting clear standards for U.S. companies entering the country, especially those eager to gain access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources. Myanmar’s citizens are already losing access to vital resources at an alarming rate, to international investors and well-connected government officials making deals in the name of ‘development’. An October 2012 investigation by Displacement Solutions land, housing and property rights notes that, “Myanmar faces an unprecedented scale of structural landlessness in rural areas, increasing displacement threats to farmers as a result of growing investment interest by both national and international firms, expanding speculation in land and real estate, and grossly inadequate housing conditions facing significant sections of both the urban and rural population.”
Many U.S. companies have a poor reputation for social responsibility, especially in countries where institutions and rule of law are weak. They need to be put on notice that they will be strictly monitored by their own government and that their government’s assistance to Myanmar will focus on protecting the land rights and livelihoods of ordinary citizens.
Secondly, the U.S. needs to speak out clearly, consistently, and boldly for the rights of minorities, including the right to citizenship for ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. For too many years, the U.S. has focused almost exclusively on the conflict between the Myanmar military and the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Both are primarily composed of the Bamar ethnic group who populate the country’s center.
However, the country’s most pressing challenge is the genuine resolution of conflict with and inclusion of other ethnic groups. The country is still at war with the Kachin population in the north; mired in communal conflict with the disenfranchised Rohingya in the west, leaving thousands in refugee camps, and holding on to shaky cease-fires with other ethnic groups. The U.S. should support a process of reconciliation which moves beyond cease-fires and leads to lasting peace agreements with Myanmar’s disparate ethnic groups.
In May 2011, President Obama said that America’s interests are served when ordinary people are empowered to chart their own political and economic futures. In Myanmar, he has an opportunity to demonstrate that he meant what he said, and that his re-engagement with Myanmar will be based on principles of justice, fairness, and inclusion.
Patricia DeBoer is regional director of the Asia programs of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker international peace and social justice organization working in 35 communities and 14 countries.