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

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.

Presented by

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

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