SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
US President Barack Obama, as part of an eight-day swing that opened in China and will soon close in Australia, arrived in Myanmar on Wednesday on an official visit to a country whose human rights record is indisputably beyond redemption.
This was the American chief executive’s second visit to the country. During his first visit, in November 2012, he was ebullient in his praise for Myanmar’s military-dominated government, whose leaders had at the time pledged to enact political reforms and to protect the human rights of minorities, including the human rights of indigenous minority Muslims, known as Rohingyas, who faced — and it now appears continue to face — escalated attacks and persecution in the largely Buddhist nation of 50 million.
Those leaders, it is now clear, have not only brazenly retrenched on those pledges, but have taken steps backward. There is a consensus among analysts that the military, or quasi-civilian, regime in Myanmar is the most repressive and abusive in the world. Almost exactly two years ago, in November 2012, in advance of Obama’s official visit to Yangon, the first by a sitting American president, Samantha Power, then Obama’s special assistant on human rights (now US Ambassador to the United Nations), wrote on the White House blog that “serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue …” The following year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution “strongly condemning the ongoing systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in the Southeast Asian nation.
And the ‘Freedom in the World 2011’ report by Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental Organisation (NGO) founded in 1941 that conducts research on democracy, political freedom and human rights, noted: “The military junta has suppressed nearly all basic rights and committed human rights abuses with impunity.” The one group that is getting the bad end of the stick there is the one million-strong community of Rohingyas — ethnic Muslims who live in the western state of Rakhine and who are, according the UN — an organisation not given to hyperbole — the most persecuted minority in the world. Rohingyas contend that they are indigenous to Rakhine, thus native to Myanmar, while the government contends that they are Muslim migrants who originated in Bangladesh, as “evidenced” by their language, also called Rohingya — an Indo-European tongue distantly related to Bengali.
In a civilised country governed by laws and institutions, and by tolerance of ethnic diversity and compassion for minorities, that would be seen as a nebulous distinction. However, in Myanmar, many Rohingyas have fled rampaging mobs to ghettos and refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh and to areas along the Thai- Myanmarese border, while more than 100,000 of these tormented souls continue to live inside the country in camps for displaced persons, forbidden by authorities from leaving. Days before Obama’s first visit to Yangon in November 2012, the Economist, in an article tellingly titled ‘Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar: No Place Like Home’, wrote of the government’s assault on defenceless Rohingyas: “Its main contours are clear: a vicious and bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing by the [Buddhist] Rakhines that is intended to drive Rohingyas out. Rakhine politicians say frankly that the only alternative to deportation is a Burmese form of apartheid, in which more Rohingyas are collared into squalid, semi-permanent internal refugee camps. Most Rohingyas have lived in Myanmar for generations — at least since British colonial days. But Rakhines and other Myanmarese citizens see them as fairly recent immigrants from Bangladesh.” And they want them out, even where that included violence.
The plight of the Uighurs, the Muslim community whose members inhabit China’s Xinjiang province in the country’s northeastern corner, may be dreadful, but it is in no way near as comparable, in degree or in kind, to the suffering inflicted on the Rohingyas by an army and a ruling elite that have brutalised Myanmar for 50 years.
We will know soon what impact Obama’s visit to Yangon will have on the country’s leaders. If that impact is as negligible as the one the American head of state had left on his previous visit two years ago, what is the point of attributing to the US the exultant moniker of ‘leader of the free world’? And what is the point, additionally, of engaging a reviled regime such as the one in Yangon that, in order to put behind it an era of sanctions and international isolation, is able to hoodwink Washington with promises about enacting human rights that it had no intention of respecting in the first place?