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Obama’s Visit to Myanmar: A Mixed Result

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. President Barack Obama and opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi hold a press conference after their meeting at her residence in Yangon, November 14, 2014 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy: Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama and opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi hold a press conference after their meeting at her residence in Yangon, November 14, 2014 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy: Reuters).

During President Obama’s visit to Myanmar last week, for the East Asia Summit, the president said some of the right things about Myanmar’s faltering political reform process. He noted the ongoing discrimination – some would say outright ethnic cleansing – against Rohingya in western Myanmar, as well as the precarious rule of law in much of the country. He expressed concern about the challenges of Myanmar’s elections next year, which will be held under a constitution designed to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the presidency and which still reserves enormous powers for the military. The constitution, as it stands, will pose a danger to any future Myanmar civilian government, even if Suu Kyi’s party, as expected, wins control of Parliament next year. And much of the press coverage of the Myanmar visit focused on the president’s remarks about Myanmar’s political challenges. Indeed, Obama’s aides clearly briefed reporters covering the trip to emphasize that the visit was focused on pressuring the Myanmar leadership to reform, since several news articles picked up this theme. Read more »

Doctors without Borders Kicked out of Rakhine State; Hatred Rising

by Joshua Kurlantzick
A nurse walks past as a child sitting at Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland's clinic in Yangon on March 3, 2014. (Minzayar Minzayar/Courtesy Reuters) A nurse walks past as a child sitting at Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland's clinic in Yangon on March 3, 2014. (Minzayar Minzayar/Courtesy Reuters)

News this past weekend that the Myanmar government appears to have kicked Doctors without Borders/Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) out of Arakan/Rakhine State is just another disturbing piece of news suggesting that inter-religious hatred in the country is rising, and the Myanmar government continues to deny this powder keg is close to exploding. Doctors without Borders had been working across Arakan/Rakhine State,  where it has treated thousands of people. The organization has been working in Myanmar for two decades and, in addition to its work in Arakan/Rakhine State, where over 100,000 people have become refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the past three years, Doctors without Borders also has been a central part of Myanmar’s anti-HIV strategy and treatment for years. Read more »

Suu Kyi Faces Growing Criticism

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi looks on as she leads a news conference at the foreign ministry in Rome on October 28, 2013. (Max Rossi/Courtesy Reuters) Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi looks on as she leads a news conference at the foreign ministry in Rome on October 28, 2013. (Max Rossi/Courtesy Reuters)

Just a short blog item to think about over your holiday season; Asia Unbound will be back in force in the new year.

Over the past two years, as Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar has spread from western Arakan/Rakhine State to other areas across the country, few leading Burman Buddhist politicians have been willing to criticize the Buddhist paramilitary groups responsible for starting most of the violence. President Thein Sein, to his credit, has on occasion condemned the violence, though his government has done little to address the root causes of the unrest. But Aung San Suu Kyi has, over the past two years, been even more reticent to comment on the unrest than Thein Sein or other top government officials. Read more »

Myanmar’s Ethnic Violence: Is the Cauldron Going to Explode?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Buddhist novice monks look from a monastery during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. Buddhist novice monks look from a monastery during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

The past weeks have seen a series of brutal episodes of ethnic violence in central Myanmar, between Buddhists and Muslims, as groups of Buddhists have attacked Muslim homes and villages and then murdered people who fled the homes in cold blood, according to multiple news reports. Many reports suggest that local groups of monks and some members of the security forces have been involved in instigating the violence.

This year may well prove to be the critical year for Myanmar’s survival as a multi-ethnic state. Read more »

Suu Kyi Fails a Test

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters after giving a speech in Monywa, Myanmar. Myanmar pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters after giving a speech in Monywa, Myanmar (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

About a week ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) held its first national congress, a kind of meeting of all party activists from across Myanmar. In theory, many activists hoped the congress would work together to set a policy agenda—like a Democratic or Republican convention—that the party could use and build on for the planned 2015 national elections. In addition, many party activists believed, the NLD would broaden its senior leadership, currently centered around Aung San Suu Kyi, to include younger leaders. Read more »

The Comedown of Aung San Suu Kyi

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a ceremony where she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at Seoul National University in Seoul February 1, 2013. Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a ceremony where she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at Seoul National University in Seoul February 1, 2013 (Kim Hong-Ji/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past year, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made the transition from democracy icon kept under house arrest for almost two decades to working politician, she has found the going harder than some of the people who were in similar situations, like Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s. Despite her best intentions, Suu Kyi seems to have surrounded herself with few competent political advisors, experts on business and the economy, or interlocutors with leading ethnic minority groups in Myanmar. Read more »

Conflict Continues in Rakhine State

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar people of Rohingya ethnicity who are living in Malaysia, display placards during a rally outside Malaysia's Foreign Ministry in Putrajaya. Myanmar people of Rohingya ethnicity who are living in Malaysia, display placards during a rally outside Malaysia's Foreign Ministry in Putrajaya (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).

The continuing violence in Rakhine (or Arakan) State in western Myanmar, as well as the expanding war in Kachin State (see an excellent piece on Kachin State by Bertil Lintner here) threaten the reforms that Thein Sein continues to push through. Some specialists on western Myanmar are now urging that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been mostly quiet on the conflict, become a kind of personal special envoy to both sides in Rakhine State to try and cool tensions. In a new article in The National, I examine the roots of the conflict, and discuss my ultimately pessimistic conclusions about whether it can be resolved. You read the entire piece here. Read more »

Are the New Democracies Pro-Democracy?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi scatters rose petals at the memorial of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi November 14, 2012. In the past, Suu Kyi has expressed disappointment with India for engaging with Myanmar's military junta. Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi scatters rose petals at the memorial of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi November 14, 2012. In the past, Suu Kyi has expressed disappointment with India for engaging with Myanmar's military junta (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Last month, democracy icon and Burmese parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to New Delhi at the invitation of Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh to deliver the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture.  Despite the two countries’ close proximity—India and Myanmar share an 800-mile border—the occasion marked Suu Kyi’s first visit to India in forty years. In recent years, Suu Kyi has publically expressed her disappointment in the Indian government’s decision to reverse decades of pro-democracy support regarding Myanmar, and pursue a more realist policy of accommodating the ruling junta. Thus, Suu Kyi’s address in New Delhi marked a potential shift in Indian-Burmese relations, and an opportunity for India to publically express support for its neighbor’s democratic transition. Read more »

U.S. Policy Toward Myanmar: Too Much, Too Soon?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Crowds line a street outside the home of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as U.S. president Barack Obama arrives to meet her in Yangon November 19, 2012. Crowds line a street outside the home of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as U.S. president Barack Obama arrives to meet her in Yangon November 19, 2012 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

On Monday Yangon time, President Obama visited Myanmar’s former capital and became the first sitting American president ever to travel to the one-time pariah. His itinerary included meetings with both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as an address before Burmese students, officials and former generals at the historic University of Yangon. “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear.  I said, in my inauguration address, ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’” said Obama during his remarks. “And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip.” Read more »

More on the Strife in Rakhine State

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Muslim children collect water at a refugee camp for those displaced by violence earlier this year outside Sittwe, Rakhine State, October 30, 2012. Muslim children collect water at a refugee camp for those displaced by violence outside Sittwe, Rakhine State, October 30, 2012 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)..

While we on the East Coast of the United States get battered by the hurricane, reports suggest that the most recent wave of strife in Rakhine State has cooled, at least temporarily. The Irrawaddy reports that at least 22,000 people have been displaced by the most recent conflict in Rakhine State, according to the UN, but that calm has been restored for now, albeit with a significantly larger presence of security forces on the streets of major towns and cities in the state, including 5,000 more police and at least 1,000 more border security forces.

Although it is certainly good that some calm has been restored, no one believes that another explosion of violence will not occur soon in Rakhine State. Read more »