On Monday, May 20, Thein Sein visited the White House, the first president of Myanmar to receive the honor in nearly fifty years. In his historic meeting, President Obama lavishly praised Thein Sein’s leadership “in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform,” before discussing joint projects that U.S. assistance will focus on in Myanmar, such as improving agriculture. Pleased, Thein Sein replied, “ I will take this opportunity to reiterate that Myanmar and I will continue to … move forward so that we will have—we can build a new democratic state—a new Myanmar…”
While the country has taken important steps toward democratization, its opening has also unleashed dangerous forces that have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, which make up about 4 percent of the country’s sixty million people. The attacks are destabilizing the country and creating the possibility of nationwide violence, upsetting Myanmar’s fragile transition and creating instability in the middle of the most important region in the world for the United States. (Already, militants in Indonesia, angry at the attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, allegedly tried to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, a plot foiled by Indonesian security forces.) As Reuters has reported: “In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Myanmar is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred.”
In a new piece on Foreign Policy, I analyze why the U.S. rapprochement with Myanmar has moved too quickly, and discuss Myanmar’s serious problems of interethnic violence. Read it here.