Dear Obama: Pivoting to Asia Doesn't Mean Abandoning Human Rights

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Turning a blind eye to the records of Washington's new partners is the wrong move.

RTR3C0EQ-615.jpgPunk rockers celebrate the new year in Yangon. (Reuters)

Mr. President, as you start your second term, you have made clear that you will continue the "pivot" to Asia, which includes moving military assets to the Asian theater, bolstering relations with Asian partners, and generally re-establishing the United States as the major Pacific presence. Your new secretary of state, John Kerry, is a longtime advocate of closer ties with mainland Southeast Asia. Within the State Department and Pacific Command, support for the "pivot" is strong as well.

In many ways, the pivot makes sense. Moving more U.S. military assets to Asia, and building closer ties with democratic partners like Australia, India, and South Korea, could help Asian nations feel more secure without necessarily sparking an arms race with China. The White House itself is not necessarily driving the pivot; Worried about China's behavior, many Asian nations have looked to the United States as a balancer in the region.

But, Mr. President, as the past two months have shown, the excitement in Washington over the "pivot" has overshadowed some serious human rights concerns among many of the United States' new friends. Your second administration needs to do a better job of continuing the pivot while demonstrating that Washington will make closer ties with autocratic Southeast Asian regimes contingent on rights improvements. I will list just a few examples here. I recently returned from Myanmar, a country which this past year you, for the first time, invited to join the U.S. and Thai-led multinational military exercise Kobra Gold. Some U.S. diplomats believe that military-military cooperation with Myanmar will grow so exponentially that by 2015 you will sign a comprehensive partnership with Naypyidaw. And indeed, Myanmar has changed significantly since the transfer of power from the military in 2010. Yet I saw, in Rakhine State, how a combination of local vigilantes and prodding from some in the security forces has led to wanton destruction of the Muslim Rohingya community, with tens of thousands driven out of their homes and large regions burned to the ground. Although the Rohingya disaster has been covered in some media, on the ground the situation actually is worse than described in most media reports, and the Rohingya are turning into Asia's new "boat people," fleeing en masse in rickety boats in hopes of getting to Malaysia. The Myanmar government also has upped its war against insurgents in northern Kachin State, allegedly bombing them with imprecise air strikes, and it remains highly unclear, from my conversations with diplomats and regional officers, whether President Thein Sein has control of his army commanders in the field.

Meanwhile, similar worries have arisen in Laos, a country virtually ignored by the United States since 1975 but courted by your administration, including with a visit to Vientiane by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Laos' rights abuses often get ignored, since the country seems, on the surface, to be so placid and slow-paced. Yet last month one of the most prominent activists in Laos, a former winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, suddenly went missing. As I noted in a previous blog, according to several news reports, he was held at a police post in the capital and then taken away in another truck which had stopped at the police post. His whereabouts remain unknown, even though, by the standards of political activism in neighboring states like Thailand, Malaysia, or the Philippines, he was hardly even critical of his government. This follows on other crackdowns in Laos. Last year, the call-in show News Talk, basically the only even semi-independent broadcast media in Laos, was abruptly forced off the air.

Finally, let's look at Cambodia, Vietnam, and even treaty ally Thailand. As I noted in a piece for The New Republic, the administration has pushed for closer military-military ties with the Cambodian military (even paying for the son of autocratic prime minister Hun Sen to attend West Point), which has a record of assassinating domestic opponents. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently met with Cambodia's Minister of Defense Tea Banh, yet in a comprehensive recent report, Human Rights Watch detailed how, over the past two decades, some three hundred people have been killed in political murders in Cambodia, many by soldiers or members of dictatorial Prime Minister Hun Sen's personal guard. The Obama administration has also re-affirmed its longstanding alliance with Thailand, a country whose armed forces two years ago gunned down at least eighty civilian protestors in the streets of Bangkok. Under new Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thai armed forces have hardly changed their tune: A group of soldiers, showed up, in full uniform, last week, outside the offices of a Thai media group, in an unsubtle attempt to threaten the group's reporters, who had been critical of the armed forces -- a highly inappropriate action for an army in what is supposedly a "democracy." And in Vietnam, where cooperation with the Pentagon is moving the fastest, the government last weekjailed fourteen activists and bloggers, continuing a crackdown on online dissent that has been building for the past three years.

In your second term, Mr. President, you certainly should not halt the pivot. It makes sense in terms of the dispersal of U.S. forces, it is desired by many Southeast Asian and Pacific nations worried by the increasing aggressiveness and opacity of the Chinese leadership, and it includes closer ties with important democratic partners like Australia, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

But, as I noted in TNR, do not overrate your own ability to change nations in the region, and underestimate the brutality of some regimes you are dealing with. In your second term, take a harder look at what the pivot is actually getting from mainland Southeast Asian nations, and whether it is worth abetting such brutalities. There is thus far little evidence that mil-mil cooperation with the United States has changed the Cambodian armed forces, for example. And these smaller nations offer little strategic benefit. Even if Cambodia was "lost" to China -- which already is Phnom Penh's biggest donor and investor, giving Cambodia some $500 million in soft loans last year -- would that be a serious blow to America's presence in Asia? Not really. Nor would it be a great loss if Laos, which also has come under increasing Chinese influence -- China provides extensive training for Lao soldiers, and is probably now Laos' biggest donor -- tilted more clearly to China. By contrast, Vietnam, despite its poor rights climate, could be a critical ally due to its large and professional military, deep-water harbors, growing interoperability with U.S. forces, and natural distrust of China.

Myanmar and Thailand are larger and more strategically located countries, and Thailand is a U.S. treaty ally. But Myanmar is unlikely to tilt toward China even if the administration had gone extremely slow in re-establishing military ties -- the Myanmar generals began to engage with the West in 2010 in large part to reduce their dependence on China, which had become the dominant strategic, economic, and diplomatic force in Myanmar. So it is unlikely that, if the Obama administration goes slower on mil-mil cooperation in the second term until the Myanmar military is more clearly under civilian control, and has purged its worst offenders, the Myanmar government would suddenly cut off its engagement with the United States.

Thailand, also, would be unlikely to downgrade ties with the United States if the White House were to take a harder line toward the Thai military. Many in the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have no love for the Thai military, since the armed forces removed Yingluck's brother in a coup just six years ago. If any Thai government were to go along with the United States in taking a hard look at how its aid helps a military that repeatedly interferes in politics and uses excessive force on its own citizens, it would be yours.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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