Despite Myanmar reforms, much remains to be done
The conflict has degenerated into an anti-Muslim campaign also targeting the Kaman minority.
‘‘Please tell Obama that we want to go home,’’ one woman pleaded this week in Sin Thet Maw, where she fled with 5,000 other ethnic Kaman Muslims after Buddhist mobs turned their neighborhood to ashes and forced them to flee on boats.
‘‘We have no schools, no medicines, no toilets,’’ the 48-year-old, Ohnmar Saw, said. ‘‘We need help, and nobody is helping us.’’
Although the crisis in the west goes back decades, it has been exacerbated — ironically — by the newfound right to freedom of expression the U.S. has pushed so long for. Racist rants against the Rohingya have appeared online with increasing frequency and viciousness. The government’s lifting of a longstanding ban on protests has paved the way for massive anti-Muslim protests staged by Buddhist monks, bolstering nationwide antipathy toward Muslims and setting the stage for the latest spasm of violence in late October.
The ‘‘democratic opening has allowed for repressed voices ... both negative and positive, to emerge,’’ said Aung Naing Oo of the Vahu Development Institute think-tank, who traveled back to his homeland for the first time this year after fleeing two decades before.
But the upside is clear: ‘‘Myanmar is no longer a dictatorship,’’ he said.
Given the new democratic equation, solving the conflict in Rakhine state will be difficult because the Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause that few politicians will defend — not Thein Sein, and not even Suu Kyi, whose party is looking toward elections due in 2015. Thein Sein appeared to make conciliatory remarks on the Rohingya in a letter to the United Nations on Friday, saying he would consider new rights for the minority, including citizenship, work permits and freedom of movement. But he stopped short of a full commitment and gave no timeline for addressing the situation.
There is also concern that the U.S. can do little to help.
America’s own interests — businesses are keen to tap into what is for them virgin territory rich in natural resources — are at risk of trumping human rights. And Obama’s trip is also part of a broader effort to bolster U.S. influence in a region dominated by China.
Washington’s decision to suspend sanctions this year has also dramatically diminished its leverage here, said Aung Din of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, which has called on Obama to cancel his trip.
‘‘The risk, without political and economic pressure, is that we will not see the process of democratic change moving forward,’’ he said.