Activist Group Uneasy About Obama’s Burma Visit

By Patrick Goodenough | November 12, 2012 | 4:34 AM EST

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Burma’s President Thein Sein in New York on Sept. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

( – A Burmese democracy activist and former political prisoner has urged President Obama to reconsider his trip to Burma next week, warning that rewarding it with an unprecedented presidential visit so soon after it launched a process of reform will strengthen the regime and undermine opposition forces.

“I believe your visit to the country at this time will only strengthen the ruling USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] party and President Thein Sein’s government, and undermine the democracy activists and ethnic minorities as well as remaining political prisoners and ever-growing civil society organizations,” Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB), wrote in a letter to the president.

Aung Din compared the Burmese regime – a military-backed, nominally civilian government led by a retired military general – to Egypt under former President Hosni Mubarak. Obama withdrew U.S. support for Mubarak amid street protests early last year, hastening his departure.

He said on Sunday he had received no response or acknowledgement from the White House.

Obama’s decision to become the first American leader to visit the Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar is a huge boost for the regime, which in the space of a year has seen an easing of sanctions – including those on the state-owned energy sector – a first-ever visit by a secretary of state, and the appointment of the first American ambassador in more than two decades.

Just 12 months ago, the administration was leery about a decision by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to allow Burma to chair the regional group in 2014.

Almost exactly one year later, Obama will visit Rangoon on November 19 and hold meetings with Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, “and speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition,” according to a White House statement.

In his letter, Aung Din acknowledged that the government has embarked on some reforms, allowed the opposition National League for Democracy to contest by-elections which saw Suu Kyi elected to parliament, freed hundreds of political prisoners (although more than 300 remain incarcerated), and engaged ethnic groups in peace talks.

But he pointed to three key areas in which he said there have been no changes: the judiciary is still not independent and impartial; the economy is still dominated and controlled by the military and regime cronies; and the military remains “above the law and dominant in the country’s political affairs with supreme powers.”

Burma’s reforms are taking place under a junta-drafted 2008 constitution, which critics say cements the military’s influence by setting aside 25 percent of seats in parliament for military representatives. Since any change to the constitution requires the approval of 75 percent of lawmakers, the military enjoys an effective veto.

“Although the charter establishes a parliament and a civilian president, it also entrenches military dominance, and allows the military to dissolve the civilian government if it determines that the ‘disintegration of the Union or national solidarity’ is at stake,” says the democracy watchdog Freedom House.

Rather than describe the transition as one towards democracy, Aung Din said he would call it a “transition to the establishment of military supremacy with limited democracy.”

“Exercise of power will still remain in the hands of the military and its allies constitutionally,” he said. “This might be similar to Indonesia under the Suharto’s regime or Egypt under the Mubarak’s regime.”


Recognizing that Obama will go ahead with the visit, Aung Din urged him at least to ensure he meets with his “real counterpart,” military chief Min Aung Hlaing, and presses him on the need for civilian control over the military.

He said Obama should also address parliament and call on lawmakers to amend the 2008 constitution, and meet with all political parties, key political prisoners, ethnic leaders, and refugees displaced by severe ethnic conflict  in Burma’s north and west.

In an essay last week Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, cautioned that changes in Burma have “fueled a ‘gold rush’ mentality of hyperoptimism in parts of the international community about the ‘new Myanmar.’

“It remains unclear whether the Army will remain on board, especially if and when reforms start touching business arrangements between the officer corps and well-connected business cronies.”

“We are clear-eyed about the challenges that Burma faces,” special assistant to the president Samantha Power wrote on a White House blog on Friday, outlining some of the issues yet to be resolved.

“But we also see an historic opportunity both to help Burma lock in the progress that it has made so far – so that it becomes irreversible – and to meet the many challenges in front of it,” she said.

“In May 2011, as the Arab Spring took hold, the President noted that America’s interests are served when ordinary people are empowered to chart their own political and economic futures. And to governments, he made a promise: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”

While in the region Obama will also visit Cambodia for an East Asia Summit and meeting of ASEAN leaders, and pay a visit to Thailand, a major non-NATO ally that has weathered serious political instability in recent years.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow