Clinton's Visit to Burma: Is Obama Administration Slipping on Human Rights?

11/30/2011 11:05 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012

Tomorrow Secretary Clinton will become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Burma (Myanmar) in 50 years. She was dispatched by President Obama to engage the regime that still holds over 1,500 political prisoners and commits serious human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, including rape.  She arrives on December 1st to shake hands with an ex-military leader turned "democrat" President Thein Sein.  However, when this "democrat" came to power, the U.S. called the elections a "sham." Over the years, Congress has enacted a number of strong sanctions against Burma for its gross human rights abuses.

When a senior U.S. leader, such as Secretary Clinton, visits a foreign country that has been previously vilified, the visit acts as an informal endorsement of that government.  Is that the message we want to send the brutal regime in Burma?

Why this change of heart for the Obama administration? Is it because a few political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were released?  Remember, she was released earlier in past years only to be re-arrested, again and again.  Human rights abuses abound -- only recently, several political prisoners went on hunger strike and were held in cells designed to hold dogs.  Attacks on ethnic minorities have not stopped and in some instances has increased under the current regime.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has tried to engage Burma. A year ago, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell was sent to discuss improvements to the political and human rights situation there.  But, after a series of talks the Burmese junta turned its back on the U.S. and held an election to elect itself "democratically" by conducting sham elections. Military generals simply changed their uniforms to suits to capture power.

There are arguments that the U.S. should seize the moment with the so-called "Burma Spring" in the making. The difference between Arab Spring and "Burma Spring" is that the Arab Spring was led by the people and the "Burma Spring" movement for change is being led by the very regime known for its brutality. Secretary Clinton's trip will also give ideas to other dictators and generals around the world about "how to engage and win Washington."

The reality on the ground is disturbing. Serious human rights abuses are continuing, despite small signs of progress such as the release of a few prisoners, minor changes in electoral law and media freedom. These changes can be too easily reversed.  And more importantly, these changes are not significant enough for a secretary of state to rush a visit to a country that became a poster child for oppression and brutality. Why this rush without waiting for concrete change?  Has Secretary Clinton ever suggested to the Burmese regime that for her to visit the regime should, at a minimum, set bench marks for human rights improvements, release political prisoners and stop abuses against ethnic minorities?  It appears that the Burmese regime has been given a blank check by Obama administration.

For the last three decades the U.S. relationship with Burma was guided by its genuine human rights concerns and lack of democracy in that country. The U.S. led the world in isolating Burma and punishing it in the international arena. Even though successive U.S. administrations were well aware of the strategic importance of Burma, they all put human rights and democracy above other considerations. Is Obama administration slipping on this stand? Otherwise, why is President Obama willing to dispatch his secretary of state to a country still on the black list for human rights abuses and democratic freedoms?

T. Kumar is the director of international advocacy for Amnesty International USA. He has worked in several Asian and African countries and served as a human rights monitor in many Asian countries as well as in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Guatemala, and South Africa. He has also served as director of several refugee camps.