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Obama's visit to Myanmar could turn out to be tricky

November 12, 2012 17:02 IST
US President Barack Obama's proposed visit to Myanmar will be coming less than a month after a new spell of violence between the native Buddhists of the Rakhine State and the Rohingya Muslims, points out B Raman

In his first foreign visit after being re-elected, United States President Barack Obama will take a trip to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand from November 17 to November 20. While he is visiting Cambodia to attend the East Asia summit, the brief visits to Myanmar and Thailand will be bilateral.

He will be in Yangon (Rangoon), where pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi lives, for a few hours on November 19. He will hold talks with President Thein Sein at Yangon. He will be accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has visited Myanmar earlier.

The proposed visit has been projected in warm terms by both the US and Myanmar. A spokesman for President Thein Sein said on November 9, "His visit is warmly welcomed. It will strengthen the resolve of Thein Sein to move forward with reforms. Obama's visit shows concrete support for the democratisation process of President U Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, Members of Parliament and the Myanmar people. President Thein Sein fully believes that the trip of President Obama will push the momentum of the process of democratic reform."

The proposed visit underlines the US's confidence in the stability of the government of President Thein Sein and its belief that there is no opposition in the senior levels of the Myanmar armed forces to the policy of political and economic reforms and opening up to the West, undertaken by Thein Sein, and his cooperation with Suu Kyi.

While there has been no comment so far from the Chinese Foreign Office, Qin Guangrong, secretary of the Communist Party of China in Yunnan who is presently attending the 18th Congress of the CPC in Beijing, said that China saw no threat to its interests from Obama's visit.

He added, "We understand and support the wish of the Myanmar authorities wanting to open up and become part of the world."

Obama's proposed visit will be coming less than a month after a new spell of violence between the native Buddhists of the Rakhine State and the Rohingya Muslims, who are projected by Myanmar authorities as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not entitled to full citizenship rights.

The violence, which led to over 80 fatalities and added to the number of internally displaced people living in camps, was triggered by the opposition of the Buddhists to a proposal to permit the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to open a permanent office in Yangon to monitor the human rights of the Rohingya Muslims and the distribution of humanitarian relief to internally displaced refugees from both communities living in camps in the Rakhine State.

While the violence has since subsided, a commission appointed by the government to enquire into an earlier spell of deadly violence in June has not been able to make much progress due to non-cooperation from the Buddhists.

US officials dealing with the visit have maintained a discreet silence on the recent violence in Rakhine State and sought to project the visit as one meant to encourage the Thein Sein government to keep moving on the democratic path.

However, there will be expectations from the Muslims of the ASEAN region, who nurse feelings of solidarity with the Rohingya Muslims, that Obama will exercise pressure on President Thein Sein as well as Aung San Suu Kyi to pay attention to the human rights of the community and grant them full citizenship rights.

The Buddhists are apprehensive that President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi may soften their opposition to the grant of citizenship rights to the Rohingya Muslims under pressure from Obama. Any impression of US pressure in this regard during Obama's visit could trigger off fresh violence in Rakhine State, weakening the ability of the Thein Sein government to restore law and order and to re-settle displaced people in their home villages.

Non-governmental human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have expressed their misgivings over the wisdom of Obama's decision to visit Myanmar at this delicate time. They are worried it could prove counter-productive.

In a report on the situation in the Rakhine State due for release on November 12, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group has been quoted by the media as saying as follows:

"The flare-up in Rakhine State represents a deeply disturbing backward step from Myanmar's reforms. This is a time when political leaders must rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion rather than just following it. A failure to do so will be to the detriment of the country. There is a threat of rising identity politics in Myanmar as reforms give new found freedoms to interest groups. The situation needs decisive moral leadership by both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi to prevent it from spreading and contribute towards long-term solutions."

The ICG urged the government to ensure camps for the displaced do not become a precursor to the "segregation" of Rakhine and Rohingya.

Obama's tricky visit is coming at a time when sections of the Rakhine Buddhists are demanding a separate policy of development for the Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with separate educational institutions, hostels and buses for Rohingya Muslim students.

B Raman