Human-Rights Groups Criticize Obama's Meeting With Myanmar Leader

Obama meets with Burmese President Thein Sein last November (AP Photo) (National Journal)

After months of praising Myanmar for its political reforms, President Obama welcomed the country's president to the White House for the first time in nearly 50 years. But human-rights groups are not happy about the invitation.

While the U.S. does not fully embrace the actions of the regime in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), calling for further reforms and cooperation between ethnic groups, Obama's meeting with the country's leader suggests unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to not address the broader problems that still exist in Myanmar, human-rights groups argue.

"(The Obama administration is) trying to hold on to this success story even if the facts on the ground show how limited that success was," said Jen Quigley, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. "We're basically ignoring some of these very serious issues, while continuing to reward the more modest positive things that have taken place."

On the eve of the president's trip to Myanmar last November, President Thein Sein released a set of human-rights pledges for his country to address in the following months. The pledges were a key caveat to Obama's trip to the country. During his visit, the president praised the nation's "remarkable journey."

"Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation," Obama said in November. "The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished."

But since Obama's trip six months ago, few to none of the pledges have been met. In fact, violence directed at ethnic minorities has risen from previous months of progress. The targeting of Rohingya and other Muslim communities remains high, as they continue to face "ethnic cleansing" that has plagued the country for decades.

"Most Rohingya faced severe restrictions on their ability to travel, engage in economic activity, obtain an education, and register births, deaths, and marriages," according to the State Department's 2012 human-rights report.

Many of the political prisoners have not yet been released nor has United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights been invited to Myanmar, two of the pledges from the regime. Additionally, violence between government forces and Kachin rebels continues, while hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced from the conflict.

"There's no doubt that a lot of reform has happened in the grand scheme of things. The question is what's been happening lately," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch. "At the end of the day, when you fail to implement your pledges, there should be consequences, whatever the reasons are."

If Thein Sein does not follow through with the promised reforms, the U.S. could reinstate some sanctions against the regime, which could include putting human rights violators of the Treasury Department's visa blacklist and not allowing the import of gemstones such as rubies and jade.

However, some experts are not so quick to criticize the meeting. Lex Rieffel, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said critics should acknowledge the progress that has already been made.

"If you look back at where Myanmar was a few years ago, how can you be unhappy with the change there?" Rieffel said. "I don't see a change for the worse. Of course, there is bad stuff still happening."

Since Thein Sein took office in 2011, he has released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi enter parliament. Thein Sein has also spoken positively about allowing foreign investors into the gemstone-rich nation.

In his meeting with the leader, Obama pressured him to continue to develop a democratic society by addressing ethnic and communal tensions.

"President Thein Sein's visit underscores President Obama's commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform, and highlights the dedication of the United States to helping the Burmese people realize the full potential of their extraordinary country," said one State Department official.