Burma, Obama’s Go-to Foreign-Policy Success, Slipping Away

by Ian Tuttle

“Look at a country like Burma,” President Obama told West Point’s graduating cadets in May,

which only a few years ago was an intractable dictatorship and hostile to the United States. Forty million people. Thanks to the enormous courage of the people in that country, and because we took the diplomatic initiative, American leadership, we have seen political reforms opening a once- closed society; a movement by Burmese leadership away from partnership with North Korea in favor of engagement with America and our allies.

Well, not so fast. The Washington Post reports:

Burma’s government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

The situation is most dire in Burma’s western reaches, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims are living as virtual prisoners, with little access to health care and food. The fast-deteriorating conditions prompted Tomás Ojéa Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, to say in April that there is an “element of genocide” in the Rohingyas’ plight.

The opening up of Burma — the ruling military junta changed the country’s name to “Myanmar” in 1989, though opponents of the regime and U.S. officials typically use the traditional name – has been cited by the Obama administration as one of the great accomplishments of its foreign policy, and particularly of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

In his West Point commencement address, the president acknowledged that “progress there could be reversed,” but even then Burma’s small gains were slipping away. Jennifer Rubin, at the Washington Post’s Right Turn blog, notes:

Despite the president’s boast in late May, by mid-June the State Department was already in a defense crouch, issuing mealy-mouthed statements when the government banned interfaith marriage (“We have expressed our concerns to the highest levels of the Burmese government”) and refused to amend the constitution to allow Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to run for the presidency (“We are aware of reports that the majority of members of the parliamentary committee considering proposed constitutional amendments has voted not to amend Article 59F of the Burmese constitution. The United States supports Burma’s economic and political reforms. We routinely engage the Burmese government in discussions around how to strengthen their democratic processes, including through constitutional reform.”)

It seems the administration needs another go-to foreign-policy achievement. Er, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?