By Alex Colley Hart, Burma Education Coordinator
On Monday, November 19, President Barack Obama will become the first ever sitting U.S. president to visit Burma. The U.S. has been a staunch critic of the military junta, which has ruled the country for much of the past 50 years and committed numerous human rights violations. Such violations include the use of forced labor, child soldiers, sexual assault, and torture, mainly against the country’s minority ethnic nationalities. However, in the past two years Burma has undertaken numerous democratic reforms and opened itself up to the world. The U.S. has responded to these reforms by re-establishing diplomatic ties and easing economic sanctions. Obama’s visit comes just a year after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
STAND acknowledges President Obama’s trip as an important opportunity for constructive engagement between the two governments, but expects the President to use the trip to directly address an area of great humanitarian importance: the ongoing mass violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
The Rohingya are stateless peoples that have been referred to by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted minority. There are as many as 800,000 Rohingya in western Burma, all of whom are considered illegal migrants. The Rohingya are not allowed to travel without official permission, banned from owning land, prohibited from having more than two children, used for forced labor, denied access to public education and healthcare, and forced to live in camps. Additionally, recent conflict between the mostly Muslim Rohingya and mostly Buddhist Rakhine has drastically increased the suffering in the region. To date, over 110,000 people have been displaced as a result of the conflict.
STAND urges President Obama to examine the violence in Rakhine State with the Myanmar government. Specifically, President Obama should:
- Pressure the government to repeal the 1982 citizenship law, which denies citizenship and, consequently, many rights to the Rohingya;
- Urge the government to allow unhindered humanitarian and media access in all parts of the country, particularly in areas of conflict like Rakhine State; and
- Advocate for deployment of UN observers to Rakhine state to monitor the ongoing degradation of the rights of the Rohingya.
No people, regardless of their ethnicity, should be denied their basic human rights. It is important that President Obama emphasize to the Myanmar government that its reaction to the conflict in Rakhine State, and specifically its treatment of the Rohingya, will indicate the genuine nature of Burma’s recent democratic reforms, and thereby determine the future of US-Burma relations.
What are YOUR thoughts on President Obama’s visit to Burma? Is it an opportunity for constructive engagement, or a premature reward to a government that still perpetuates numerous human rights violations? What should the President say and do while in Burma? Join the conversation on our Facebook page, or Tweet @standnow with your thoughts.