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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2857

Will President Obama emphasize R2P on Thein Sein?

By Kanbawza Win

America’s new Burma policy adopted by the Obama administration, a combination of increasing engagement and maintaining economic sanctions, was the prime mover in urging Thein Sein to introduce reforms after more than half a century of repressive military rule, when he became an elected head of state in 2011 November. Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma, a step in his administration's efforts to end decades of diplomatic isolation of the country as a reward its shift from authoritarian rule.

It is no denying that sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations had throttled Burma’s economic growth, which can led the people to rise again en masse as in 1988, besides the country is slowly becoming an autonomous region of China, whom the entire Burmese people hates and hence there was little choice for quasi military regime. So, naturally Thein Sein was eager to win Washington's favour by freeing political prisoners, changing laws to open the political field to the pro-democracy movement of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and undertaking financial liberalization, and implementing cease fires with ethnic nationalities among other measures. For this the 55 million plus people of Burma covey their heartfelt and sincere thanks to America and President Obama.

While there's still broad bipartisan backing in Congress for the administration's efforts to support reformer Thein Sein, the unrest in Burma and the ethnic cleansing of Kachin, Shan and Rohingya combined with Burma’s security forces failure to prevent it, has deepened concern about the human rights situation in the country. An explosion of communal violence between the majority Buddhists and Muslims minority has spread in recent months to other parts of the country that has left 100s killed and more than 100,000 displaced and most of them were minority Muslims. The graphic, grisly scenes shown by the BBC and VOA taken by non other than the Burma police, who has a secret orders not to prevent the carnage has shattered the conscience of the people of Burma and that of the world.

The US and the international community have the moral responsibility to prevent the impending genocide in Burma. Signs of coming Genocide in Burma written by Sai Latt of the Simon Fraser University of British Columbia, Canada has systematically draws the hypothesis of the impending genocide in Burma. There is no denying that Burma is trying to imitate the Khmer Rouge, another Buddhist regime led by Pol Pot of Cambodia in 1975 where it killed off nearly 4 million people. Will Obama put some sense on Thein Sein that he got the responsibility to protect? R2P.

Burma and Rwanda

What happened in Rwanda in 1994 is at least 800,000 Rwandans were killed, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic nationality. Rwanda’s genocide was not a sudden “outbreak.” The conditions for full-scale killing were developed over many years, particularly the 40 months prior to April 1994. At that time the signs were explicitly clear, but the international community simply ignored them. Prior to April 1994, the international community was congratulating the ethnic Hutu-dominated government for improved state capacity, and awarding it with aid money. Millions upon millions of dollars of developmental aid were channeled to the country. The government had complete control over foreign aid money in Rwanda. The government bought arms from abroad; 581,000 machetes were imported from China. Hate messages against Tutsis were openly broadcasted on radio stations. Thousands of Tutsis were already being massacred. The international community not only failed to react, but continued to present an image of the government’s reform initiatives.

Now, all these signs are visible in Burma, as Thein Sein who previously got a prestigious Peace Prize from Brussels and US not only welcome President Thein Sein but also the Tatmadaw for military engagement and the world at large eulogize the quasi military regime to change for the better. The Buddhist criminals including Burma Bin Laden and the fiery monks roam free with the tactic approval of the security forces blessed by the government, while the Muslims were single out for persecution tantamount to indirectly encouraging the genocide of the Muslims. Genocide could not happen without turning a large portion of the population into thugs and killers, genocide is a campaign to which potential killers are recruited over time. But people did not simply become killers. They were turned into mass murderers by propaganda that drugged their mind with misinformation and lies. There has been a precedent in Depaeyin Incident in 2003, initiated by none other than the ruling party USDP (United in Slaughtering Depaeyin Participants) at that time was USDA officially acknowledged by the Junta itself. So some key points from the report are worth paying attention to, as similar signs can be seen in Burma.

Before the genocide in Rawanda, there were two reports published in 1993, one by four NGOs and another by the UN special rapporteur of the impending genocide and detailed massive arms distribution, extreme anti-Tutsi rhetoric, and government-backed killings mainly targeting Tutsis. No one reacted. So also in Burma the recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and statements by UN envoys to Burma, Mr. Tomas Quintana and Mr. Vijay Nambiar, detailing mass killing, systematic and widespread violence against ethnic Rohingya nothing was done. The scenario is very similar to Rwanda.

In Burma, local media is stirring up resentment of Rohingya and Burmese Muslims. In Rwanda, Tutsi were described as foreigners who stole the land from the rightful owners, the Hutu. Hutu propagandists accused “Tutsi Unity” to be the idea that facilitated Tutsi’s past conquest and helped in their quest for domination. So also in Burma, ethnic Rohingyas, and now Burmese Muslims, are widely portrayed as foreigners. They are said to be taking over the land, race and Buddhist religion. Equivalent to “Tutsi Unity” was the number “786” used by Muslims. According to anti-Muslim preachers, 786 stand for Muslims takeover of Burma and the world in the 21st century. But in fact represents a Quranic phrase: “In the name of God, most Gracious, and most Compassionate”.

Tutsis in Rwanda were labeled “cockroaches”. In Burma, followers of these propagandists have called the Rohingyas “viruses” and “dogs”. Denying the warning signs is not really serving their purpose; it only blocks attempts to take preventive measures so that unimaginable cruelty is not unleashed. It is a good thing that tropical Cyclone Mahasen missed Western Burma where thousands of Rohingya displaced persons are camps. The Thein Sein against the advice of experts has deliberately placed in the lowland so that they will be the first to suffer whenever the cyclone came. Now even when help was offering to evacuate most of them prefer to die with the Cyclone than to live a life like animals. Such is the prevailing situation in Buthidaung, Maungdaw area of Burma.

US Moral Aptitude

The US government should have insisted that good governance and human rights reform is essential operating principles for new investments in Burma. By allowing deals with Burma’s state-owned oil companies such as oil the US looks undercut Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others in Burma who are promoting government accountability. The US must be careful not to sacrifice its committed principles of democracy and human rights and jeopardize long-standing relationships with democratic and civil society forces in Burma as no Burmese want to say the word Hypocrisy to America.

The White House has always been a strong ally of the democratic resistance in repressive Burma but a series of political reforms beginning last year has led to plaudits from the international community and Western nations in particular. Burma soon became a darling of the West and even lauded as a prodigal son. Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability and lasting peace. And fundamental reforms are required to strengthen the rule of law and increase transparency

There are still serious human rights-related risks when investing in Burma, not only weak rule of law, poor regulation and enforcement of labor and environmental standards, and the lack of an independent judiciary, but also Tatmadaw’s extensive involvement in the economy as well as its use of forced labor and other abusive practices linked to providing security for business operations. Government corruption and mismanagement is widespread and Burma’s 2008 Nargis Constitution enjoys legal supremacy over civilian authorities.

But every Burmese knew that US’s strategic refocus on the Asia-Pacific region is one of the driving forces behind embracing military-dominated Burma in order to advance its foreign policy goals. Located between rising China and India, who boast nearly half the world’s population between them, resource-rich Burma is more attractive than ever. There are several reasons why the White House, invited Thein Sein as it wants to move itself closer.

Firstly, the incentive to continue to encourage further democratization.

Secondly, Washington has long been seen as a strong supporter of Burma’s opposition movement.

Thirdly, Burma has long been seen as satellite state of China. While in the past, India was always the main counterbalance to Beijing’s growing clout in Burma, now Naypyidaw wants to instead restore normal relations with Washington—receiving aid, military training and assistance—to perhaps forge closer strategic ties. The key is Burma’s direct access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

This also perhaps matches US foreign policy in the Asia Pacific—its ascendancy in the region to counter the might of China. It will not be surprising to see Washington wanting to revive its military assistance to Burma. Burmese soldiers, including intelligence officers, received training in the US until the late 1980s.There is no doubt that the US is coming back to Asia and form America’s pivot towards Asia as a whole.

Whether the nascent reforms instigated were “real and significant,” the barometer should be human rights violations in Arakan, Kachin and Shan states as well as acknowledging the need for further political, social and legal development. Now it is time to see how the US will balance its policy toward Burma during the ongoing fragile political transition, as this remains an ethnically divided nation where repressive measures are still applied and ordinary people do not feel they are free.

Tyranny of the Majority

The “tyranny of the majority” is used in Burma since before 1962 meaning the majority rule, envisions a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots. In many cases a disliked ethnic, religious or racial group are deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process. This is exactly what the Thein Sein Administration has been doing to the Burmese Muslim minority. The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.

The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic states that is capable of resisting it. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; if he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in Burma there is no such thing.

Burma’s past regimes have spent decades refining what some call a "Thugocracy for Profit". Tatmadaw dominated government has secured its power by stealing ethnic lands super-abundant in natural resources. Profit from this has fueled the power of Burmese's general officer corps, which has secured other business monopolies, as well as political power assurances in its new constitution. Over the years, the generals have had to cozy up to China as their chief benefactor and backer. This has come at considerable cost in terms of China's encroachment into almost every facet of Burmese life. The Myanmar elites are now fearful of being totally dominated by China and so, out of necessity, must engage the West as a counterbalance. This is the crown aspects of Thein Sein coming to the White House. They also feel that Western business practices may be much more profitable for them than China's, which tend to be exploitative and monopolistic. The point here is that this may be just realpolitik for survival, not the enlightened reform that much of the world hopes for.

While international attention focuses on the good potential of Myanmar, the generals are continuing business as usual in the shadows and on the frontiers. Thein Sein does not control these active and retired power brokers, who have always "run the show" managing a massive repressive apparatus that has been based on bloody tribute from the bottom up. These generals insist on retaining all stolen ethnic lands rich in oil, natural gas, gold, precious gems, uranium, hydro-power potential and strategic ports and international trading routes. They know of no other way to make money and stay in power. International corporations and governments, meanwhile, are looking the other way at human-rights abuses across the land, because the profitability of doing business with military-linked elites has been so lucrative. Will President Obama overlook all these negative aspects? Perhaps Dr Zarni is correct when he said that Obama will not be talking to Thein Sein about these ethnic conflict or attacks on Muslims in any serious manner because the United States is desperate to hold the hands of the Burmese generals and ex-generals out of its undeclared designs against China.

After more than half a century Burmese’s generals have never beaten ethnic resistance forces, which by some estimates kill government soldiers at ratios of up to 100:1. While it is unlikely that continued political manoeuvring will produce enduring solutions under a constitution rigged to favor the generals, it makes much better sense for all stakeholders to focus on shared economic development as their common bond. The hope of prosperity for all, instead of profit for a few elites, is fertile ground to be explored as the way forward.

Everybody knows that Thein Sein’s main motive for withdrawing the military from power is probably to end the country’s pariah status. But there are several reasons why he would want to keep the army’s influence high. The main reason is that his fellow generals would overthrow him if he did not protect them from future prosecution for their past crimes. The military does not believe that a strictly civilian government would be tough enough to hold the country together, so they have no intention of giving up power completely. The army has to find some way to make it more popular politically, and the obvious way is to position itself as the defender of Burmese unity against treacherous ethnic nationalities and religious minorities. Then it might win support from the majority population. There is no doubt that the Tatmadaw is now complicit in anti-Muslim violence elsewhere in Burma. The military is clearly hoping that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will speak out in defence of the Muslim Burmese, and thereby lose her popular support among the highly nationalistic majority. Knowing this, she has chosen to remain silent, presumably thinking that all this can be fixed after she wins the 2015 election. Sadly Burma was following Yugoslavia in 1991, when the Serbian communist elite, led by Slobodan Milosevic, tried to keep its hold on power by playing on Serbian resentment of the other nationalities. The result was a decade of war and the fragmentation of the former Yugoslav federation into seven successor states.

President Obama must have recollect that when the Mayflower carrying 102 Pilgrims set sails from Plymouth in 1620 to find a new country call America on this side of the Atlantic, was based on freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, democracy and human rights. That is why America became the superpower today. Now the road between the two countries has been paved, what in Burmese we call by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her endeavours should not be discarded as just one of the stones on the road to be trample, as the Burmese vocalist Zaw One sings with Thein Sein walking gleefully to shake the hands of President Obama.

President Obama must reaffirms America's commitment to human rights, democracy, and governance, there will be several consequences in Asia that even hard-core realists will lament (not to mention the idealists who would normally be comfortably at the core of a Democratic Foreign Policy): Change agents within repressive states who matter most will be demoralized, disempowered and possibly endangered. Repressive regimes will continue to think that they can get away with much lower standards than the administration could sell to the Congress or the American people if they want to lift sanctions or advance engagement. Repressive regimes will continue citing evidence of a higher U.S. tolerance for human rights abuses and the importance of addressing human rights and democracy will subside; America's greatest source of soft power -- American values -- will suffer even though he has diplomatically relented that dictators can change the name of the country according to their whims and fancies, without the consensus of the people.


A bipartisan group of 32 senators urged the White House to increase the effectiveness of its Burma policy, and nearly 60 members of the US House of Representatives also wrote in to President Obama urging him to raise the issue of crimes against humanity in Burma before the UN Security Council

Sai Latt Signs of Coming Genocide in Burma? 8-5-2013

Sai Latt Signs of Coming Genocide in Burma? Irrawaddy 8-5-2013

Refer to Alison Desforges detailed in a Human Rights Report on Rwanda

Zaw; Aung, US Increases Pivot towards Burma 18-10-2012

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.7

The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877

Heinermann; Tim, A need for balance in Burmain Asia times

Roughneen; Simon, On and Off the Table for Thein Sein’s White House Visit Irrawaddy 17-5-2013

Heinermann; Tim, A need for balance in Burma in Asia times

Dyer; Gwynne, Burma: The silence and the damage done.

- Asian Tribune -

Will President Obama emphasize R2P on Thein Sein?
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