On November 13th, 2014 President Barack Obama held a town hall at Yangoon University in Burma. During the event, protesters held up signs that read, “Reform is Fake,” “Illusion,” and in reference to Obama’s own campaign slogan, “Change?”
Obama himself addressed the signs at the beginning of his remarks, reading them aloud and assuring protesters that they would have time for questions at the end of the town hall where he could address their concerns.
The New York Times, in their article of the event, used pictures of the town hall but made no mention of the signs. The protest and its glossing over by major media outlets demonstrates the fraught relationship that many are having with the Burmese government as it inches towards democracy, accountability, and equality.
While there have been legitimate reforms that have enabled the United States to engage with the Burmese government on a diplomatic level, full reform and rule of law in Burma cannot be established while the constitution places the military outside of civilian control.
As Zin Mar Aung said in an Op Ed in the Irrawaddy Journal,
“Before fully embracing the Burmese government as a democratic partner, the United States must revisit its carrot and stick policy, which has, of late, been much more carrot than stick. Instead of a credible “stick,” we have seen an overall lack of accountability toward the regime.”
These sentiments reiterate statements from Global Justice Center, President, Janet Benshoof, from over a year ago.
“Despite this disturbing evidence of ongoing human rights abuses, military attacks on ethnic civilians, inconsistencies between government statements and actions…the global community continues to ignore or downplay both the significance of these violations as well as the limitations of the constitution.”
Though there have been democratic reforms and fragile advances, the reality is that military rule still prevails in Burma, armed conflict continues and the military enjoys constitutional-guaranteed impunity for war crimes. The Global Justice Center has long called on the United States and the international community to insist that the Burmese government dismantle the structural barriers in place that prevent true peace and democracy.
At the end of the town hall, Obama was asked what he would do if he was President of Burma to help the country develop, he responded,
“Number one, there needs to be an election next year. It shouldn’t be delayed. Number two, there should be constitutional amendments that ensure a transition over time to a fully civilian government. Number three, there needs to be laws put in place to protect freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom to politically organize.”
Though he is not President of Burma, there is still much Obama can do to help achieve these commendable objectives, by using diplomatic pressure, supporting capacity building, policy dialogue and calling for accountability for human rights abuses.