President Obama Must Carry a Human Rights Message to Myanmar or Risk Setting Back Momentum for Reform

11/16/2012 05:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

By Suzanne Nossel

Some human rights organizations and Burmese activist groups have derided President Obama's decision to travel to Myanmar next week and become the first U.S. president to set foot in the nation long known as a pariah regime.

The concern isn't idle. The few hours that the president will spend on the ground in Myanmar sends a signal that the government is no longer an international outlaw. Human rights proponents fear that if the Myanmar government thinks its battle for acceptance is won, the people of Myanmar will lose a powerful lever for change -- the seductive pull of legitimacy that comes from being treated as a peer by world leaders.

But the president's stop-over, provided he delivers a clear and forceful message that Myanmar's transformation is far from complete, has the potential to advance rather than set back reform.

The president's decision to visit Myanmar is testament to an expectations-defying pace of reform there over the last two years. In roughly 18 months, Myanmar has liberated hundreds of political prisoners, held elections that led to freed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi being elected to Parliament, relaxed censorship laws and allowed unions to organize. The Obama administration rewarded the improvements by appointing an Ambassador to Myanmar for the first time in decades, orchestrating a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the spring and relaxing sanctions that previously barred U.S. corporations from doing business in the country. Earlier this month the administration held its first human rights dialogue in Myanmar, with high-levels meetings with the government as well as civil society leaders, ethnic minorities and human rights groups. The White House issued a detailed description of the talks that seemed aimed to rebut notions that the warming of relations is premature.

Yet the progress is far from complete. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are still jailed. In recent months ethnic violence in the country has soared, killing 200 and forcing more than 100,000 to flee ethnic strife in Rakhine state.

A week ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Myanmar government to revise its laws to ensure that ethnic groups lacking legal status gain equal access to citizenship. Regarded as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Myanmar's Rohingya minority has been subject to a relentless and escalating onslaught of violence. Myanmar's government shows little interest in Rohingya rights, and even Aung San Suu Kyi has been reluctant to hold the government accountable for respecting their rights.

Critics of President Obama's planned trip see the visit as giving an A grade to performance that merits a mark of at best "Incomplete." There is concern that the president may be eager to overlook Burma's warts in the quest for a new friend in the region. They worry that Burmese authorities will sidestep the tough problems that remain once they get their coveted chance to bask in the halo of the president's presence. This need not be the case, though. Myanmar's decision yesterday to release 450 prisoners on the eve of the president's trip is testament to the leverage he has to drive forward reform. It is critical that during his brief time on the ground President Obama conveys a forceful message to Burmese authorities. He should press for the release of all remaining prisoners of conscience, call for equal access to citizenship to be extended to the Rohingya, and insist that U.S. corporations do not put profits ahead of people in their scramble for Burmese markets. It is not enough to talk tough in private while keeping a public face that is all smiles. Only by delivering a strong, public human rights message -- mixing justified praise with pressure pointed enough to rankle the government -- will oppressed minorities in Burma come away from his visit feeling empowered rather than ignored.

The impact of the president's trip will be felt not overnight, but over time. The diplomatic arena offers frequent venues -- conferences, summits, assemblies - for heads of state to embrace or snub one another. If the sense of momentum that prompted this fall's visit fades, it will be all the more incumbent on President Obama to take the next occasion to make the U.S's displeasure clear. By claiming Myanmar as a policy victory, Obama also assumes some responsibility for possible future failure. If Myanmar's government fails to follow through on the reform process and address the ethnic violence, the president must not be so invested in his own policy success story that he overlooks troubling signs, or is slow to react to atrocities.

By making his first foreign policy move post-election a historic visit to Myanmar, President Obama has intertwined that country's fate with his own human rights legacy.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director, Amnesty International USA