The visit to the US on May 20th of Burma's Resident Thein Sein should have been an opportunity for important issues to be resolved on human rights and justice for Burma's persecuted minorities. Instead, the Burmese government announced on May 28th is a discriminatory population control regulation that restricts Rohingya Muslims to having two children. Implementation of this policy is consistent with the wider persecution of the largely stateless Rohingya, a clear violation of international human rights protections.
The violent persecution of the Burmese Muslims has thus taken a new and ominous turn, making President Thein Sein's promises seem cynical in the extreme. The ongoing state-sanctioned violence against the persecuted minority of Muslim Rohingya people continues to alarm and horrify the rest of the world. The Rahkine Investigation Commission established last year to look into the violence eventually produced a report in April 2013, in which President Thein Sein promises to act "to create a harmonious society where all communities can live together peacefully." The cynicism of his response, while members of the army and police are either standing back or actively engaged in looting, burning and killing in Muslim areas, is matched by the inexplicable silence from Burma's democracy movement leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
For the United States to welcome the country's President therefore was deeply disturbing as it is painfully clear that substantive reforms on religious freedom, tolerance and human rights would not be on the agenda. President Obama urged a halt in the violence against Muslim communities and commentators noted he was "cordial but not effusive" in his public dealings with the Burmese President. Many fear that Obama has moved too quickly in welcoming Burma's unfinished transition to democracy and note that he is using the name Myanmar more often, giving legitimacy to the former military regime, instead of the old name of Burma.
Meanwhile, US business interests are pushing for changes in the current status of US sanctions and other concessions designed to foster trade and development and access to Burma's oil, natural gas, minerals and timber. Naturally the Presidents will discuss the amount of dollars for aid and how it will be administered. Unfortunately, the Burmese government's previous record on using international aid for the good of its people has been abysmal.
After Cyclone Nargis devastated most of Burma in May 2008, the regime at first refused the aid offered by international agencies, then when it did accept, the funds went first to the army and Buddhist groups who enriched themselves at the expense of those most in need. The current nominally civilian government still acts in many ways like the former military dictatorship and the series of reforms they have instituted since 2011 do not include its minority communities.
The number of political prisoners from the previous regime is still considerable and prisoners are released it seems only to gain political advantage, described as "manipulative" by democratic activists. More than twenty political prisoners were released in advance of Thein Sein's US trip -gaining more publicity than the 40 Rohingya people who were killed in anti-Muslim riots last month.
The European Union recently lifted the last of its trade, economic and individual sanctions against Burma in response to its political reform program but the arms embargo will stay in place. Human Rights Watch Asia head, Phil Robertson has described the EU decision as "premature and regrettable", a sentiment echoed by many in the US.
The silence of democratic activists about the plight of the Rohingya people has been inexplicable. However, on May 27th Parliamentary opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said about the two-child policy that, "it is not good to have such discrimination. And it is not in line with human rights." Deploring the situation is not enough - Human Rights Watch spokesman in the area, Brad Adams, calls on all donor government to speak out.
"If this policy had been announced by a Burmese government official before the reform process began, donors would have denounced it in the strongest terms. Now, when the international community's influence is much greater, governments and donors need to find their voices."
It will indeed be premature and regrettable if President Obama makes any more friendly overtures towards President Thein Sein without a guarantee that the Rohingya people will be spared and that ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity will no longer threaten the Muslims of Rakhine state.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
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