President Thein Sein of Myanmar is in Washington this week, the first Burmese head of state to visit since the military dictator Gen. Ne Win in 1966.
Much has changed since 1966. Fifty years of direct military rule have ended, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is out of house arrest and sits in Parliament, along with 42 of her colleagues from the National League for Democracy, and hundreds of political prisoners — including the most prominent dissidents — have been released.
Preliminary, fragile cease-fires have been reached with most ethnic armed resistance groups, and in Yangon and other major cities there is greater space for civil society, more freedom for the media and more opportunity for political actors. The first steps toward freedom are being taken.
When dictators unclench their fists, they should be met with an outstretched hand. The international community is right to bring Myanmar in from the cold, to engage reformers and to support the process of democratization with expertise and encouragement.
However, engagement should not be uncritical or unthinking. Myanmar is just starting out on a path of reform, and there is a very, very long way to go.
The political changes under way mark a change of atmosphere, but not yet a change of system. President Obama must encourage Thein Sein to go further, to engage in serious constitutional and legislative reform.
Repressive laws remain on the books, and are still used to lock people up. There remain several hundred political prisoners and hundreds have been jailed during ethnic and religious conflicts in Kachin and Arakan states. The Constitution still disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency and guarantees the military a quarter of parliamentary seats. The military’s role in politics may be reduced gradually, as in Indonesia, but if Aung San Suu Kyi is to be eligible for the presidency after the next election in 2015, the Constitution needs to be amended soon.
The cease-fires are welcome, but amount only to pressing the pause button on conflict. Thein Sein must press the stop button by establishing a genuine nationwide peace process with the country’s ethnic nationalities to search for a political solution to decades of civil war. The ethnic nationalities are united in their desire for a federal system of government, guaranteeing equal rights and a degree of autonomy. Aung San Suu Kyi supports this.
Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities collectively amount to 40 percent of the population and inhabit 60 percent of the land. They live along Myanmar’s borders in some of the most resource-rich areas and along the major trade routes. It is therefore in the government’s interest, and that of the international community, to find a genuine solution to the ethnic conflicts. International investors will want to see peace and stability.
In addition to turning existing cease-fires into a lasting peace, Thein Sein must end the army’s offensive against the Kachin people. Two years ago the military launched a new campaign against the Kachin, ending a 17-year cease-fire. Since then, over 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced, at least 200 villages burned down and 66 churches destroyed.
Grave human rights violations continue, including rape, torture and killings. If Myanmar is really on the path of change, the government must end these abuses and tackle the culture of impunity that has existed for so long.
There are two other major challenges Thein Sein must address. The first is the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas, one of the most marginalized people in the world. Their history is disputed, but no one can truthfully deny that they have lived in Myanmar for generations. Yet the government, and many in Burmese society, claim they are all “illegal Bengali immigrants.”
This view is based on years of misinformation and propaganda. The Rohingyas were recognized until the 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of their citizenship and rendered them stateless. Since then, they have faced a slow-burning campaign of persecution, which exploded last June and again in October, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,000 and the displacement of at least 130,000.
Human Rights Watch has published evidence of mass graves and a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Evidence shows that the security forces have done nothing to prevent this and, in many instances, have been complicit in the violence.
Earlier this year, the anti-Rohingya campaign turned into a wider anti-Muslim campaign, with appalling violence by Buddhists against Muslims in Meikhtila and other parts of Myanmar. There are deep-seated prejudices within Burmese society that need to be addressed, but there are also concerns that elements of the security forces may be stoking the flames. At the very least, the security forces have been grossly negligent, failing to intervene quickly and in some cases standing by as people were hacked to death and buildings burned.
In his discussions with Thein Sein, President Obama has a long list of issues to raise. If democracy is to take root, he must emphasize an end to ethnic and religious conflict and respect for human rights. These can only be achieved by a concerted and sincere effort by Thein Sein’s government.
If Thein Sein’s government makes this effort, its already heralded path of reform has a good chance of success and President Obama’s policy of engagement will be proven right. We urge Thein Sein to prove the cynics wrong and we urge President Obama to leave the Burmese leader in no doubt as to what the international community expects of him.
José Ramos-Horta is former president of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Muhammad Yunus is founder and former managing director of Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Benedict Rogers is a human rights advocate with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author of Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads.