American cannot be bluffed by the Burmese Generals

American cannot be bluffed by the Burmese Generals

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Burmese lawmaker and businessman linked to attacks on the country’s democratic opposition. The sanctions, announced just come days before President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Burma, as part of a gathering of regional leaders. The sanctions will require U.S.-connected firms and individuals to freeze the assets of Aung Thaung, a current member of Burma’s lower house of parliament and former industry minister and army officer. [1] Aung Thaung usually known as the cut throat in Burmese, has master minded to undermine recent economic and political changes of the country and is implicated in previous attacks on the country’s democratic opposition. “By intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma, Aung Thaung is perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption,” said Adam J. Szubin, the Director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The U.S. had removed some of the sanctions aimed at the previous military government in 2012, but U.S. citizens and companies still face restrictions in the country even though a steady stream of senior U.S. officials has visited the country this year, culminating with Mr. Obama’s current visit. “The administration is sending a strong message that people in the government who aren’t committed to the transition process are going to face consequences,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.[2] The foreign policies of the U.S. and Europe towards Burma have been heavily influenced by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political experience. Domestic policies has connotations in the foreign relations.

It can be recollected that when President Obama made his historic visit to Burma two years ago, he answered critics who charged that he was prematurely rewarding the country’s military-dominated rulers by saying, “If we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.” [3]Prophetic words, it turns out, as the president returns to Burma, the country has lost the reformist sheen it had in 2012, and its backsliding poses a challenge to Mr. Obama, for whom the opening to this exotic, tragic country will rank as one of the diplomatic achievements of his presidency. Yet Mr. Obama is doggedly continuing to engage: He called the Burmese President U Thein Sein a former General to press him on the pace of constitutional reforms and on the treatment of Arakanese Muslims, a mixture of indigenous Arakanese and Chittagonian Bengali immigrants imported enmasse by the British to cultivate sparsely populated land during the colonial days, in remote western Burma, where thousands of people are languishing in internment camps after violent persecution by the Arakanese Buddhist majority openly that was encouraged by the Tatmadaw (army), the ruling USDA party and the extremist monks led by U Wirathu (Burma’s Bin Laden) . “We understand this is hard to address,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the Deputy National Security adviser, summarizing the president’s message to Burma, “but if you do not take steps toward alleviating the humanitarian situation, that is going to have a profound effect on Burma’s standing and the perceptions of its progress.”[4]

Under normal circumstances, he would not have been likely to visit the country again until after elections scheduled for 2015 that will be an obvious benchmark to judge Burma’s progress from reclusive military dictatorship to democracy. Instead, President Obama will visit during a messy period when the easy steps for the quasi –military government of Burma- like releasing of political prisoners, limiting the media-are behind it, and the hardest parts of the transition loom ahead which include reducing the Tatmadaw’s role in the political process, ending decades of civil war between the Myanmar dominated Buddhist majority and non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities who constitutes more than 60% of the country’s population, and stopping the violence against the Muslims.

The recent death of a Burmese journalist, U Par Gyi where he was routinely tortured to death has also aroused fears of a government crackdown on the press, which had become lively after U Thein Sein lifted strict censorship rules and the blocking of Internet sites. “There are so many elements that are going wrong,” said John Sifton, the Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. “Once the Burmese sanctions were lifted, the reforms started to stall.” This is the message which the world understand and there is clear sign that not only the existing sanctions be lifted but more should be imposed for the Burmese authorities to comply by the existing civilized rules.

The National League for Democracy, is expected to sweep to victory. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the democrats have focused on eliminating the Tatmadaw’s veto over constitutional amendments, calculating that it will be easier to push through other changes after that. In a separate phone call to Daw. Aung San Suu Kyi, President Obama talked about “the need to ensure an inclusive and credible process for conducting the 2015 elections,” according to the White House.[5] He plans to meet her in Rangoon the historic capital, after attending the East Asia Security summit in the new purpose-built capital by the people’s blood and sweat, Naypyidaw. In Rangoon, administration officials said, Obama will also hold a town-hall-style meeting with young people, similar to one which he held in the Convocation Hall of the Rangoon University, a symbol so much hated by the ruling generals as it considered to be the birthplace of dissent. That will give him a platform to speak publicly about the need to accelerate political reform and to curb the violence against the Arakanese Muslim where 95% could speak only Bengali instead of Burmese. “To help the people of Burma get beyond this will require some sophisticated, thoughtful nudging. This cannot be solved from the bully pulpit.” said Lex Rieffel, an expert on Burma who is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.[6] However, Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “We are vigilant to potential threats to the reform process but our job isn’t to measure progress; our job is to promote progress.”[7] And who can say after the President Visit business will overrules the conscious.

The Bigger Picture

One must recollect that within forty-eight hours after winning re-election to a second term, President Obama announced he would visit three countries in mainland Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. Actions speak louder than words; the visit shouts Obama’s intent for a purposeful focus on Asia in his second term. We understand that this is not a typical Asia visit for a U.S. president. The itinerary is based on strategic intent and requires the political courage of a leader with a mandate. President Obama will seek to inject new energy and vision into that special relationship. Obama is carving out new patterns for U.S. engagement in Asia.[8] No U.S. president since the Vietnam War era has made an Asia visit that focused completely on Southeast Asia. During his first term, Obama’s foreign policy team staked out a smart Asia policy that had ASEAN at its core. The approach recognizes that the best way to manage a fast-growing China that is feeling its way to defining its regional and global role would be to create Asia-Pacific architectures that would encourage China to make and play by the rules defined collectively by the neighborhood. This strategy includes the dual benefits of taking pressure off U.S.-China bilateral ties, which remain critical but now have regional and global context, and appealing to China’s national security strategy, which nominally seeks to avoid conflict with countries on its borders and near neighbors.

In order to execute this strategy effectively, the United States will need to achieve two goals. First, as exemplified by the president’s visit, it must deepen relationships will all 10 of the ASEAN countries. This means developing a much more granular and in-depth set of ties and understandings of these countries. That effort is well underway. The second goal in executing the US approach is to put the country’s fiscal house in order and build a political foundation for engagement in Asia among Americans. These objectives are works in progress. While President Obama’s trip to Asia sends a strong message, the power and sustained impact of US engagement depends in the near term on avoiding driving the US economy off the fiscal cliff and starting to tell Americans why Asia is a core part of economic recovery—and long-term growth and well-being. In fact, the true test of whether the president understands this linkage is whether he mentions the important role of trade and Asia when he talks about the economy in Washington.

No doubt, the president’s visit to Burma has come under strong criticism from some human rights groups who argue that, by visiting countries that still have political prisoners and serious human rights problems, he is undercutting efforts to pressure for change. These campaigners play an important role, and their comments are useful in helping to remind U.S. partners that human rights and democracy are important parts of the quilt of U.S. foreign policy. In Burma the president’s visit is likely to have historic impact lending momentum to political and economic reform. There is a clear pattern established over the last year that strong encouragement has resulted in the release of political prisoners. President Obama’s visit is a bold and politically courageous step. It should send Asia a strong signal of intent for a president who has proclaimed himself “America’s first Pacific President.”[9] To fulfill that self-described legacy, Obama must not only continue his good record of visiting the region and getting to know its leaders, he will need to lead a discussion among Americans about why Asia is important to this country’s immediate economic recovery, as well as its long-term prosperity and security.

President Obama visiting Nov. 12-14 for the East Asia Summit (EAS) will highlight Burma’s ambitions to once again be a player on the regional economic scene after decades of isolation. Making those ambitions a reality in the coming few years depends on how Burma deals with a host of internal challenges ranging from providing jobs for millions of people to dealing with anti-Muslim violence. The outcome matters greatly for foreign investors and companies, given the country’s location between China and India, as well as its energy resources. “The importance of Burma’s transition to the regional economy lies in the fact that the country’s rich resource base – both natural and human resources – adds to ASEAN’s economic potential and offers the ‘greenfield’ advantage to investors, which can only increase ASEAN’s investment stock, Burma also has a largely cash-rich ready-made consumer base. Burma’s location in the region provides the unique bridge for South, Southeast, and East Asia; it is at the nexus of many economic corridors, and thus an important node for ASEAN’s connectivity either by land, sea or air. Still, addressing anti-Muslim violence and government-sponsored discrimination, achieving a lasting peace with ethnic groups and pulling off a 2015 national election are all challenges that stand in the way.”[10] Said Moe Thuzar, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and other Asia-Pacific heads of state coming to Burma means making those ambitions a reality in the coming few years depends on how Burma deals with a host of internal challenges.[11]  The outcome matters greatly for foreign investors and companies, given the country’s location between China and India, and its energy resources. Burma’s pariah state status – and the fact that it was under US sanctions – set back ASEAN’s attempts to become a major economic grouping for years. With those sanctions eased or lifted, Burma is back in the game, discussing a special economic zone with Thailand, a highway linking India and China, and other East-West corridors – all while preparing for the beginning of the ASEAN Economic Community, a regional trade zone. “Burma also has a largely cash-rich ready-made consumer base. Burma’s location in the region provides the unique bridge for South, Southeast and East Asia; it is at the nexus of many economic corridors, and thus an important node for ASEAN’s connectivity either by land, sea or air, all of this becoming a reality we can believe in, however, depends on how the transition succeeds “[12] said Moe Thuzar.

Bluff-ology of the Tatmadaw.

Bluff-ology a newly coined word secretly used by the Burmese generals among themselves, has a Greek origin: a suffix meaning: to talk, to speak; a branch of knowledge; any science or … when the “o” is actually part of the word stem that receives the logy ending. The Tatmadaw in its rule of more than half a century (since 1962) seems to have contributed this new term to the English speaking world that bluffing and lie-ing systematically was able to hold on to power up to this day. Of course the Burmese government appears to recognize the need to show progress before President. Obama’s visit. With that in mind Burma’s president and its powerful military chief hold an unprecedented meeting with the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi runs the headlines of South China Post, in fact the Nobel laureate has previously asked for a “four-party summit” between herself, Thein Sein, Shwe Mann and Min Aung Hlaing since she became a lawmaker in 2012.[13]It was only now a hastily arranged get-together in the capital, Naypyidaw, comes as a complex peace process with armed ethnic freedom fighters on the brink of collapse but also Suu Kyi’s party – backed by five million petitioners – to amend the constitution and reduce the political clout of the Tatmadaw. The meeting takes place as US President Barack Obama prepares to visit Burma for a regional summit amid growing US concerns about human rights abuses. “The government seems to intend to use this meeting to create a good impression before President Obama’s visit,” said political analyst Yan Myo Thein.[14] Also attending the talks will be Shwe Mann, the influential lower house speaker and chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. A former heavyweight under army rule, he is seen widely as a reformer, but with presidential ambitions.

Obama had spoken to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about how Washington would “support efforts to promote tolerance, respect for diversity, and a more inclusive political environment,” the statement, said.[15] Thein Sein administration is now at a crossroads as it grapples with thorny political and constitutional questions and the search for a nationwide ceasefire to several non-Myanmar ethnic rebellions.[16] Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Burma and visiting fellow at the Australian National University, said the timing of the meeting, before Obama’s visit, was highly significant.[17] President Obama “underscored the need for an inclusive and credible process for conducting the 2015 elections and a firm commitment to helping the people of Burma achieve a more free, open, and prosperous nation.”[18] He had also asked U Thein Sein to take “additional steps” to bring peace to the western Burma state of Rakhine, where two waves of deadly violence against the Arakanese Muslims had left about 200 people dead and around 140,000 displaced.[19]

In the first-ever high-level roundtable meeting had gone meaningfully as some has hoped would be a major breakthrough. It is true that there have been cease-fire agreements between armed ethnic groups and the central government but there have been no long-lasting peace deals.[20] Until Thursday, October 30, there had been no direct engagement between the government and the leading opposition groups. But it has been done superficially and with the presence of the Tatmadaw mentality, “we alone are patriotic” as expected there is no major breakthrough, except that amendments to the country’s controversial Constitution would be considered by Parliament, a development that Suu Kyi and ethnic groups have long sought.[21] Thein Sein focused on three areas during the talks, calling for a frank discussion and cooperation among all national political actors to find solutions to the country’s problems

But the positive aspect is that just before the President’s visit that announcement was made that the government would allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected president. A person that was born of a Burmese parent, bred and speak Burmese, popular, dedicated to the people, highly educated, popular politician and the only Burmese Nobel laureate, was barred from standing in elections by the country’s constitution because of her marriage to a British family.[22] It also announced that the landmark elections would be held in the last week of October or the first week of November 2015.[23] Over the years, Burma certainly had become the victim of its own States’ policy. The growing realization about its past mistakes mainly on its adamant posture is getting reflected in its ongoing transition. The reform process initiated in 2011, and the chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014 produced a novel image of Burma.[24]

But still, I would rather agree with Burmese Prof. Bush Gulati of Toronto wrote:-

There have been hundreds of them since 1948. They were made only as stopgap arrangements until warring factions could re-fill their arsenals and re-charge their batteries. The 66-year old civil war in Burma is the national army’s creation designed to justify its own lifestyle and privileges. Think Pakistan and its Punjabi army. Burma has no foreign enemies and no war on the horizon. What Burma’s 60% ethnic minorities were promised at the time of independence in 1948 was a proper federation and credible democracy. Sadly, the majority Myanmar, out of mortal fear for losing their dominant position, have not been willing to concede on those two points. Over the years, the army has successfully lulled the 60% majority ethnics, the Myanmar into believing that it exists to save the state from disintegration. The army’s notion of the Burmese state is a nominal federation: One nation, one language, one centre of power. Think Beijing. What Burma needs is not another ceasefire, but permanent peace, a true federation and transparent democracy. I have witnessed first-hand the unfolding of Burma’s history since long before independence in 1948, so I have no reason to believe President Barak Obama can achieve that for the Burmese before he demits office.”[25]

Contact- bathannwin@gmail.com

Note: 

[1] Mouldin;William, U.S. Sanctions Myanmar Lawmaker Ahead of Obama Visit, The Wall Street Journal, Capitol Hill 31-10-2014
[2] http://www.trust.org/item/20141031164629-pfbbf/?
[3] Landler; Mark, On Visit, Obama to Face a Backsliding Myanmar New York Times 31-10-2014
[4] Landler; Mark, On Visit, Obama to Face a Backsliding Myanmar New York Times 31-10-2014
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/01/world/asia/on-visit-obama-to-face-a-backsliding-myanmar-.html?_r=0
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Bower; Ernest Z, Obama Trip Shows Purposeful Asia Focus in Second Term Centre for Strategic Studies 2_11-2012
[9] Ibid
[10] Summit will put Myanmar in the spotlight. Monitor Global Outlook 15-10-2014
[11] http://www.monitorglobaloutlook.com/Briefings/2014/04/myanmar-facing-multiple-pressures-in-rakhine
[12] Summit will put Myanmar in the spotlight. Monitor Global Outlook 15-10-2014
[13] Aung San Suu Kyi to meet Myanmar’s military leader for first time South China Post 1-11-2014
[14] Ibid
[15] Myanmar convenes talks with opposition AFP News 31-10-2014
[16] http://www.manilatimes.net/myanmar-convenes-talks-opposition/138255/
[17] Ibid
[18] President Obama calls for ‘inclusive’ vote process in Burma Mizzima News 31-10-2014
[19] Ibid
[20] Ebbighausen’ Rodion Opinion: Myanmar’s multi-party talks could be a model for the future Deutsche Wella 31-10-2014
[21] Naing Zaw;Htet, Meeting of Burma’s Big Political Players Yields Little The Irrawaddy 31-10-2014
[22] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/burmamyanmar/11200548/Burma-to-consider-reform-to-allow-Aung-San-Suu-Kyi-to-be-elected-president.html
[23] Burma to consider reform to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected president Daily Telegraph 31-10-2014
[24] Myanmar in the Asia-Pacific ISEAS Aug.2014
[25] Gulati; Bush, One thought on “Obama pushes reforms in phone call to Burma’s Thein Sein and Suu Kyi in D4B Internet news 31-10-2014

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