Engaging Myanmar for right reasons

Posted: November 17, 2012

By Patricia DeBoer

On Monday, President Obama is expected to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar (Burma), the strongest endorsement yet of the country's reform efforts. There is no doubt that tremendous political change has taken place in Myanmar, including the election of opposition party members - among them Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi - to the new government. Washington has lifted long-standing sanctions and normalized relations with the once-isolated country.

We at the American Friends Service Committee, which has quietly provided humanitarian assistance inside Myanmar since 2005, welcome these developments, even though they come against a backdrop of violence that threatens to destabilize Myanmar once more. But we also wonder what comes next.

The United States has yet to articulate a clear policy guiding its interactions with Myanmar. This has led to widespread speculation about its intentions. Is America engaging because its businesses fear being left out of lucrative natural resource deals? Is it hedging against China by extending its alliances in Asia? Or is it trying to help bring peace and prosperity to Myanmar's people?

We urge Obama to use this trip to start framing a policy aimed at peace and reconciliation. Such a policy must have two cornerstones.

First, America needs to show it's engaging with Myanmar for the right reasons, putting the needs of ordinary people first. This means increased U.S. aid must focus on the pressing concerns of Burmese citizens: land, livelihood, health care, education, and basic security.

It also means setting clear standards for U.S. companies entering the country, especially those eager to gain access to its rich resources. Myanmar's citizens are already rapidly losing access to vital resources to foreign investors and well-connected officials making deals in the name of "development." A probe by the organization Displacement Solutions noted last month that "Myanmar faces an unprecedented scale of structural landlessness in rural areas, increasing displacement threats to farmers, ... expanding speculation in land and real estate, and grossly inadequate housing conditions."

Many U.S. companies have a poor reputation for social responsibility, especially in countries where institutions and the rule of law are weak. They need to be put on notice that they will be strictly monitored by their own government.

Second, America needs to speak out clearly and consistently for the rights of Myanmar's minorities. For too many years, Washington has focused almost exclusively on the conflict between the military and the National League for Democracy, headed by Suu Kyi, both of which are made up primarily of members of the dominant Bamar ethnic group. But inclusion of other ethnic groups is Myanmar's most pressing challenge.

The country is still at war with its Kachin population in the north; mired in communal conflict with the disenfranchised Rohingya Muslims in the west; and holding on to shaky cease-fires with other ethnic minorities. The United States should support reconciliation that leads to lasting peace agreements with these groups.

The president has said that America's interests are served when ordinary people are empowered to chart their own political and economic futures. In Myanmar, he has an opportunity to demonstrate that he meant what he said.


Patricia DeBoer is Asia director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-based international peace and social justice organization.

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