Obama’s Myanmar Visit Concerns Some Activists

BY Jeremy Blackman  November 19, 2012 at 11:19 AM EDT

President Obama charted history Monday by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, which has undertaken rapid political reform in the past year.

The six-hour sojourn included a speech at Rangoon University and talks with President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And in a surprise move on the eve of the president’s arrival, Sein announced his government would establish a review process for political prisoners and would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and other human rights groups access to prisons and conflict regions.

Administration officials have described the trip as a tool to promote Myanmar’s shift away from military dictatorship and as a significant step in the president’s ongoing “pivot” to Asia.

“I’m not somebody who thinks that the United States should just stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there is an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” President Obama said during a weekend press conference in Thailand.

But the visit also has met with criticism from some human right’s activists, who say little has changed in the upper ranks of the Burmese leadership, and that repression and ethnic violence remain rampant in much of the country. The president’s visit likely will achieve the opposite of what many intend, by legitimizing those in power who have yet to embrace ironclad reform, the activists say.

“The issue is the message it sends to those who have not been part of the reform agenda,” said Jennifer Quigley, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “This is basically telling them that they can do what they want because sanctions will still be lifted and there will be no repercussions for further repression.”

Quigley acknowledged that President Sein’s announcement was a major step forward — human right’s groups have requested greater access to conflict zones for years — but cautioned that ultimate authority in Myanmar still rests with the military and that it’s unclear as of now to what degree they will abide by those reforms.

“It’s very eloquent but at the same time that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll follow through,” she said. “The problem hasn’t been with President Sein, but with the military, their inability to change or lack of desire for reform.”

Much of the concern centers around continued violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where, according to the Associated Press, more than 110,000 people — mostly of ethnic minority descent — have been displaced.

Quigley said minority groups believe the government has done little to end the turmoil and that it has tempered political reform by leaving in power several formerly despotic military leaders. And their plight, she said, might worsen as foreign investment moves in and land is increasingly privatized.

“The conditions on the ground are still very bad and the many feel repressed and see all these changes being touted by the government as extremely fragile,” she said. “They see this as a superficial peace process.”

There is also a lingering concern over political prisoners who have yet to be released by the government. Though it freed nearly 500 inmates last week, it’s still unclear if any of those were actually political prisoners.

President Obama did not gloss over those concerns during his remarks Sunday.

“I don’t think anybody is under any illusion that Burma has arrived; that they’re where they need to be,” he said. “One of the goals of this trip is to highlight the progress that has been made, but also to give voice to the much greater progress that needs to be made in the future.”

Samantha Power, a top Obama adviser on the region, pointed last week to a number of areas still in need of reform, including the recognition and protection of ethnic minorities. “It is an incredibly tense, dangerous and important issue for us to be engaging on at every level we can,” she said.

The Obama administration has engaged with Myanmar on many levels in recent months. It has responded to the country’s political reforms by lifting several sanctions, appointing a permanent ambassador to the country and by pledging greater investment if Myanmar continues on its current trajectory.

President Obama added that his visit also was intended to raise a broader awareness of the progress taking shape in Myanmar.

“Change can happen very fast if a spotlight is shown on what’s going on in a country and the people there start believing that their voices are heard around the world,” he said. “And one of the things that we can do as an international community is make sure that the people of Burma know we’re paying attention to them, we’re listening to them, we care about them.”

This post was updated at 2:22 p.m. ET Monday to add President Thein Sein’s announcement regarding the review process for political prisoners.

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