In the west of Myanmar, terrified villagers flee burning homes after an explosion of ethnic and religious violence. In the north, refugees from a civil war cower in chilly camps, desperately short on basic necessities. In dank jails, hundreds of political prisoners languish behind bars, wondering if they will ever be freed.
This is not the Myanmar that US President Barack Obama was to see when he became the first US head of state to visit the pagoda-studded country yesterday. He wanted to encourage the stunning democratic transformation Myanmar has undergone since last year, but there are concerns his visit may be premature.
The nation’s warp-speed revolution is fragile. Its nascent transition has already been bloody. Much unfinished business remains: from repealing harsh laws that helped silence a generation of pro-democracy dissidents, to overhauling a political power structure still tipped heavily in favor of the Burmese army.
“If President Obama doesn’t put his full weight behind further urgent reforms in Myanmar, this trip risks being an ill-timed presidential pat on the back for a regime that has looked the other way as violence rages, destroying villages and communities just in the last few weeks,” Amnesty International US executive director Suzanne Nossel said.
White House officials on Thursday said that Obama’s visit to Myanmar should not be viewed as a “victory celebration.”
They reiterated that urgent action is still needed, particularly on freeing political prisoners and ending the unrest in western Rakhine State.
“This is a moment when we believe the Burmese leaders have put their feet on the right path and that it’s critical to us that we not miss the moment to influence them to keep going,” Obama’s top Asia adviser, Danny Russel, said.
There is little doubt that the reforms in Myanmar have come quicker and gone farther than any Burmese citizen dared dream.
Just a few years ago, Myanmar was a place denigrated by Washington as an isolated “outpost of tyranny,” a country led by a xenophobic clique of army officers so distrustful of the West that they rejected foreign aid even when Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people in 2008.
Even when the junta ceded power to an elected government early last year, few considered the prospect of real change. The vote, boycotted by the main opposition, was considered neither free nor fair and the elected leader, Burmese President Thein Sein, was a former general.
However, Thein Sein’s government surprised the world. It freed hundreds of political prisoners, though not all of them. It signed cease-fire deals with numerous rebel groups. It abolished a draconian system of media censorship. It revamped finance and investment laws.
Aung San Suu Kyi — the longtime opposition leader who spent most of the lpst two decades as a prisoner in her own home — is now an elected lawmaker with an official voice in the government.
Today, the consensus is the reforms are irreversible. However, that does not mean “the future is necessarily bright,” said Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the late UN secretary-general U Thant.
The problem is “not with the political leadership at the top, but with the enormity of challenges facing this country after decades of war, repression, and international isolation,” he said.