Recently, the newly re-elected US president Barack Obama visited Burma, which has been the most run of the mill rouge states in this region for a long time. Burma has been reforming rapidly and a visit from the sitting president of the USA has been viewed as a stamp of approval both domestically and internationally.
Secretary Clinton’s visit to Burma opened the door for the Presidential visit and added to the newly found enthusiasm within American foreign policy circles concerning Burma. From an impartial outsider’s perspective this enthusiasm may seem a little odd and definitely worth a second look. Why is America so suddenly interested in Burma?
Other Pariah states that have gone through this process of approval, waited many years to reach this point of close interaction. Non-apartheid South Africa waited 8 years for a presidential visit; Serbia, Libya is still waiting for one. So the rapid rise of Burma through the ranks of former rogue states is a unique one. It is a product of both perception and necessity of the new reality America faces in the world. The perception is that there are tangible benefits for America to pursue within Burma and the reality is that America’s foreign policy needs tweaking as it has been faltering like a three-legged dog after the massive missteps during the Bush years and the rise of middle powers like China and India, during that period only added to the woes of the only remaining superpower.
For the USA this is a good time to pivot to Asia due to the collapse and inevitable reorganization of the European economies and Russian bullishness against its interest. The USA needs to have a more proactive approach to countries that are uneasy with the Sino-approach to diplomacy, which entails more stick than tea. With Burma the issue is deeper than just trying to find new markets to usher in Mcdonalds diplomacy and Burger King consumerism. It is where the chess game between USA and China would be played out in the long run. So Burma might end up being to the USA what satellite states were to Russia. If the smaller countries like Cambodia and Burma start working as a bloc, there is a distinct possibility that the unfettered Chinese influence would be kept in check. That is why Burma has become such an important player, so much so, that it took only 20 months for a presidential visit after ‘liberalization’. America’s long term game here is to create a coalition of the willing who will counter the rising Chinese influence within the region. As a bonus American led MNCs will have more access to the resources, which were mostly available to few outsiders previously.
Among all these strategic manoeuvring there is another important message to the rogue states that is being conveyed subtly. There is quick and fruitful reward to be had if rogue states become less ‘rogue’. This provides incentives to states like North Korea and Iran; whether or not those are strong incentives are up for debate. Also this may not work as the baggage North Korea and Iran has with the USA, is almost as bad as the baggage Rihanna has with Chris Brown or Tina has with Ike.
From a strictly strategic perspective we can see why Burma would be a good gamble to take for USA. It is a high reward country. But it is also a high-risk country. Its dodgy human rights against its own people have reached a point of no return with the Rohingyas. This situation is very much like the situation with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Just like that conflict, no one is willing to address the issue with the gravity it requires. It is going to be a problem both internally and internationally in the long run. So the USA needs to be careful about how it positions itself with the Rohingya issue as too much congeniality at the expense of human rights will not bode well and will give the Chinese more ammunition about USA’s willingness to look the other way when it serves them financially. What America needs to convey here is not of full approval but a cautious approval of Burma’s government. An outright stamp of approval without addressing one of the most pressing refugee crises in the world would surely send the wrong signals to other states with similar issues, including China and Russia but more importantly will strengthen the hands of the current president in Burma.
This realization is not lost among the Burmese exiles who have consistently advocated that this visit is too soon and too rewarding for the military Junta which is still running the country, be it covertly. Aung Din the executive director of U.S. Campaign for Burma has suggested that this visit is not the right signal to send to Burma as it is still fighting a largely non-transparent war in the Kachin state while subjugating the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. Both of these issues would be sore reminders that the liberalization may be superficial and just because procedural markers (voting, elections) of democracy exist in a country it does not mean it is progressing to a liberal, sustainable democracy with equal rights for all. So Obama’s administration needs to be careful. Once you provide a stamp of approval to a government that is covertly as repressive as ever, it tends to backfire (i.e. Saddam’s Iraq, Mubaraks’s Egypt). Obama’s role in this would have to be of a leader who presses the Burmese about UNHCR presence in the country, transparency concerning the ongoing conflict in Kachin and Rakhine region, not just be a house guest for Suu-Kyi and provide soaring rhetoric that warms the hearts but does not accomplish anything in the long run.
Tom Malinowski, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office reiterated this sentiment by stating that while he would have very much liked the president to go to Burma but he was not sure if a visit there, this early, has sent a good message. His reservation comes at the back of the ethnic conflict that is brewing within Burma. And the release of the now infamous satellite images of the Rakhine state suggests that it is a volatile situation that is unfolding as brutally as most objective observers and war theorists have predicted. So it is not the right time to be conciliatory but the time to press Burma over its role concerning the Kachin and Rakhine states. There is a distinct possibility that eventually most of these leaders who would be hobnobbing with the Presidential entourage will be brought to justice for war crimes and ethnic cleansing, if the situation does not change rapidly.
International law may not be as strong as it ought to be, but the progression of the Jus Cogen doctrine concerning human rights abuses that systematically deprive people of life, liberty and welfare, is something that is well established. And all countries are bound by the binding nature of the genocide convention. The crimes that are being committed in Burma would fall into that category as some of it is systematic and thus it is not a good idea to provide a blank check to the Burmese with a presidential seal of approval. Obama’s role here is not of just a statesman but also of an enforcer. Because lets face it, without American involvement and rebuke, there is nothing stopping the Burmese in ethnically cleansing minority groups. “Hope and change” may only prevail if the way is ‘forward’, if that works for America, it should work for Burma too assuming the carrot comes with a stick.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a war theorist and a visiting researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development, Harvard University.