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Apartheid in Myanmar?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
May 16, 2013

Myanmar's President Thein Sein attends the opening ceremony of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok on April 29, 2013. Myanmar's President Thein Sein attends the opening ceremony of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok on April 29, 2013. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters)

Next week, Myanmar President Thein Sein will arrive in Washington, DC, for a historic visit and meeting with President Obama. It will be the first visit by a Myanmar president to the United States in nearly fifty years. Only three years earlier, nearly every top Myanmar leader had been barred from entering the United States (and most other leading democracies) due to sanctions on the country’s military-ruled government and on nearly all exports to and imports from the country. U.S. congresspeople regularly castigated Myanmar as one of the most tyrannical societies on earth, and when former president George W. Bush found himself in a room in the mid-2000s, at an Asian summit, with Myanmar’s then-leader, he essentially refused to even acknowledge the other man’s presence.

Now, the situation had reversed itself so rapidly that many longtime Myanmar-watchers in Washington cannot even keep track of the changes. In these days before the visit, Myanmar is being portrayed positively by nearly every American official. While once American policymakers had blasted Myanmar and its government as a tyranny, now they paint it as a model of emerging democratization, a potential bright spot in a world where democracy has regressed for the past seven years, according to global monitoring group Freedom House.

Yet as this incredibly well-researched new Reuters piece shows, Myanmar actually is poised on the abyss of implosion. A new kind of apartheid against Muslims is being instituted across the country, Reuters reports, leading to growing interreligious and interethnic violence. In some cases, this violence may be encouraged, or at least tolerated, by the state security forces, as Human Rights Watch showed in its own report last month. Will any of these serious, dangerous challenges be brought up during what is expected to be a triumphant visit by Thein Sein? Will President Obama even mention the exploding violence in Myanmar while the president is here? Don’t count on it.

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