Myanmar is a country where oxen still haul carts of wheat past simple houses made of bamboo and dried leaves, much like they did centuries ago. Its education and healthcare systems are neglected, in tatters.
Although the country exports electricity, its infrastructure is so poor and mismanagement so high that only about 25 percent of people living there have access to electricity.
The nation’s best and brightest are abroad: A 1988 crackdown on democracy protesters forced a generation of skilled labor to flee. Refugees — hundreds of thousands in Thailand alone — continue to live in camps, still too uncertain to return.
Although Thein Sein’s administration has been widely credited with beginning the monumental task of turning the ship of state around, it also has seen grave setbacks.
Chief among them is the collapse of a 17-year-old truce with ethnic Kachin rebels in Myanmar’s north that triggered a wave of fighting that has driven more than 75,000 people from their homes. On Wednesday last week, Kachin rebels attacked a prison convoy, killing two convicts and injuring 14 others, state media reported.
In western Myanmar, another 110,000 people have been displaced in a separate conflict between the Buddhist Rakhine and the stateless Muslim Rohingya.
Many Rohingya are born in Myanmar, but denied citizenship because the government considers them foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh.
The conflict has degenerated into an anti-Muslim campaign also targeting the Kaman minority.
“Please tell Obama that we want to go home,” Ohnmar Saw pleaded this week in Sin Thet Maw, where she fled with 5,000 other ethnic Kaman Muslims after Buddhist mobs turned their neighborhood to ashes and forced them to flee on boats.
“We have no schools, no medicines, no toilets,” the 48-year-old said. “We need help and nobody is helping us.”
Although the crisis in Myanmar’s west goes back decades, it has been exacerbated — ironically — by the newfound right to freedom of expression the US has pushed so long for.
Racist rants against the Rohingya have appeared online with increasing frequency and viciousness. The Burmese government’s lifting of a long-standing ban on protests has paved the way for massive anti-Muslim protests staged by Buddhist monks, bolstering nationwide antipathy toward Muslims and setting the stage for the latest spasm of violence last month.
The “democratic opening has allowed for repressed voices ... both negative and positive, to emerge,” said Aung Naing Oo of the Vahu Development Institute think tank, who traveled back to his homeland for the first time this year after fleeing two decades before.
However, the upside is clear: “Myanmar is no longer a dictatorship,” he said.
Given the new democratic equation, solving the conflict in Rakhine State will be difficult because the Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause that few politicians will defend — not Thein Sein and not Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party is looking toward elections due in 2015.
There is also concern that the US can do little to help.
The US’ own interests — businesses are keen to tap into what is for them virgin territory rich in natural resources — are at risk of trumping human rights. Obama’s trip is also part of a broader effort to bolster US influence in a region dominated by China.