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Obama Administration Goes Public on Patronizing Burma Policy

US President Barack Obama meeting with President Thein Sein of Burma at the Burma Parliament Building in Rangoon, Burma, November 19, 2012. (Pete Souza/White House)

By Rachel Wagley

Foreign Policy Journal

December 6, 2013
When the Obama Administration spontaneously lifted sanctions against Burma without conditions in 2012, it concurrently slammed the door on the bipartisan congressional coalition that had played a pivotal role in shaping US policy toward Burma for two decades. Congressional requests for the administration to rationalize its new, hurried, and improvised policy to “extend the hand of friendship” to Burma’s former military dictators have since been repeatedly ignored.
But on December 4, administration representatives finally acquiesced totestify before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacificon how the administration’s engagement policy will advance reform in what Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) called Burma’s “increasingly volatile on-the-ground situation.” Their testimonies re-hashed the administration’s deeply flawed and patronizing narrative that Burma’s dictators have transformed into genuine agents of reform, even as they continue to perpetuate human rights abuses and to wage war against Burma’s ethnic minorities.
This narrative is used to substantiate the casting of Burma as a foreign policy success story, imperative in order to bypass the human rights concerns that would otherwise prevent the administration from gaining a strategic and financial foothold in Burma. Because Burma is one of the world’s most corruptand abusive countries, defending this narrative requires functional indifference toward Burma’s many systemic challenges, including the notoriously repressive constitution, the military’s perpetuation of mass atrocity crimes and relationship with North Korea, and anti-Muslim violence.
Indeed, when asked how the administration plans to promote constitutional reform before Burma’s 2015 elections, Judith Cefkin, the State Department’s senior Burma advisor, argued that Burma’s parliamentary constitutional review committee, established in summer 2013 due to international pressure, has the capacity to drive constitutional reform. Cefkin said the US’s tangible role would be thus limited to providing “technical assistance” to the government, rather than leveraging US concessions to ensure constitutional revision.
The administration’s apparent reliance on mere technical support to drive constitutional reform reveals a willful obliviousness of how Burma’s political process works. The review committee has no decision-making power. More importantly, the military regime – author of the 2008 Constitution – ensured before its “democratic transition” in 2011 that 25% of parliamentary seats are constitutionally reserved for the military, and that all constitutional amendments must be approved by more than 75% of the parliament. The military and the USDP, the regime’s political party, currently control over 80% of parliamentary seats, rendering significant revisions wholly unimaginable.
The administration showed further need of reality check when justifying its emerging military engagement strategy. Department of Defense representative Vikram Singh met with bipartisan resistance when articulating the administration’s aim to offer trainings and concessions to the Burmese military regardless of its continuing abuses and relationship with North Korea. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) sardonically countered, “I don’t believe the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing, raping, and stealing land from people in their country.”
Singh also disingenuously testified that Burma’s ethnic groups themselves are urging the US “to engage the armed forces…and help the military itself modernize and transform.” On the contrary, ethnic groups,133 of which sent a joint letter to Obama in October 2013, are warning that the Burmese military will use US engagement as a token of legitimacy and a spoke in its PR campaign. Ethnic groups, under a perceived threat of inevitability, lent only restricted support for military engagement under the qualification that the US implement pre-conditions (e.g. requiring the military to stop all attacks before officers are allowed to attend US trainings). Singh left off this substantial qualification.
When pressed to explain how non-conditional engagement will advance reform, Cefkin weighed in to resort to clichés: “We can’t be absolutely sure that it will succeed, but if we don’t try, we can be quite sure that it won’t succeed.” Cefkin and Singh were unable to adequately respond when Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) questioned how non-conditional engagement could entice the military to end sexual violence and the use of child soldiers.
USAID’s Gregory Beck also relied on the administration’s fantasy narrative. Beck betrayed the administration’s inaction on Burma’s ongoing anti-Muslim violence by inaccurately referring to the violence as “inter-communal.” When asked how the administration is handling ethno-religious violence, Beck highlighted US efforts to work with Burmese President Thein Sein’s office to establish “early warning systems” to prevent future violence. But the President’s office has been Burma’s most prominent anti-Muslim agent, condoning violence, vehemently recommending the deportation of the Rohingya Muslim minority, and failing on numerous occasions to act on intelligence that could have saved many Muslim lives.
Beck also touted the fact that USAID has assisted “over 6,000 Community Based Organizations and women’s groups.” But conspicuously, exhausted Kachin community-based organizations – those almost singlehandedly feeding and sheltering the tens of thousands of ethnic Kachin displaced by the Burmese military’s ongoing war in the north – have not received a single dollar.
The Obama Administration’s testimonies before the House Subcommittee help demonstrate how US policy toward Burma is increasingly out-of-touch and dismissive not only of the people of Burma, but also of US lawmakers across the political spectrum – and the people of the US.
Correction: This article originally stated that “constitutional amendments must be approved by at least 75% of the parliament”. Amendments must be approved by more than 75% of the parliament. The text has been revised accordingly.