Published: Nov 16, 2012
Dear Mr. President,
In January of this year the House and Senate Republicans were in yet another of their obstructions – they have engaged in so many of them I forget exactly which one this was- against your policies. Imagine my surprise when I saw this picture in the Irrawaddy online news magazine, and saw an accompanying article describing Senate Minority Leader Senator McConnell’s visit, and read the following opening paragraph:
“US Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell met with Burmese President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw on Tuesday morning, after which he stated that Thein Sein is a genuine reformer and held out the possibility that US sanctions on Burma would be eased or lifted following the April by-election.”
Senator McConnell in Burma? The man who had just months before issued a statement of support for the Kachin people of Burma who fought alongside the US against the Japanese in WWII? Here he was shaking hands with Thein Sein, the head of the government whose military at that time, and currently is engaged in gross abuses of human rights as it wages war against the Kachins who are fighting to protect their homeland and identity as a people. I realize that the US policy, supported by both parties, is to “pivot” towards Asia and that there are strong US business interested impatient to tap the consumer market in Burma, as well as the country’s abundant natural resources, but was I shocked at how quick Senator McConnell, and the US government seemed willing to embrace Burma’s limited political reforms, and the concomitant business opportunities despite the ongoing attacks on Burma’s minority populations.
And now the news comes that you will be following Senator McConnell’s lead and travel to Burma to shake hands with Thein Sein.
I understand that the US would very much like to pivot its foreign policy to Asia after its foreign policy disasters in the Middle East. I understand that Burma offers economic opportunities for US and European companies. I understand improving relations with Burma would curtail the growing Chinese power in Asia. I also understand that there have been real substantive changes in Burma, particularly in the political and human rights areas. Not only has Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi been released from house arrest and elected to parliament, but other prominent political prisoners like Min Ko Naing have been released and allowed unprecedented freedom. However, there is still a long way to go.
Mr. President, you just re-elected in an election that was historic in many respects. One of the historic aspects was the unprecedented role that minorities, African American, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other minorities played in electing you. Minorities, that despite the unprecedented efforts of Senator McConnell’s party took to suppress their votes, turned out and endured long lines to vote for you. In your acceptance speech you rightly noted that this was a problem for democracy.
In Burma, the indigenous ethnic nationalities account for at least 40%, but not being able to participate in the election process for many of them that is the least of their worries. As I have mentioned the Kachin people in the Kachin and Shan States, whose armed struggle against the Burmese regime started in 1962, are once again fighting against the Burmese military in order to stop the Myitsone Dam project in the Kachin State and the Shwe oil pipeline in the Shan State. Both projects, which entail eviction of local populations and damage sites that are historically, culturally, and ecologically significant, will benefit the Chinese and central government, but not the Kachin people.
In Arakan, the conflicts between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the Rakhine, the Buddhist majority in Arakan have led to devastating communal violence that the government that both Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are a part of seems unable to stop. The Rohingya are routinely denounced as illegal immigrants that are a threat to the culture of Burma and there are demands that they be deported from the country. Sound familiar? There is no Dream Act that will give the Rohingya education or citizenship. All they can dream of is not having their houses burned down, their places of worship destroyed or they themselves not be beaten or killed. If long voting lines are a problem for democracy, aren’t the continued attacks on Burma’ indigenous ethnic nationalities a problem as well? Are they on the agenda for discussion with the Burmese leadership?
It is not just the indigenous ethnic nationalities who are being bypassed by the reform. Plenty of people from the Burman ethnic majority, part of Burma’s “47%” are still experiencing injustice. Thirty thousand people in the region surrounding the Dawei port project have been removed from their homes. Farming communities around the giant Letpadaung copper mine have had their lives disrupted and their concerns ignored. Farmers throughout Burma have had their lands illegally confiscated by investors with ties to the military. The lands have been confiscated for development in anticipation that US sanctions will be lifted when you visit Burma.
Let me close with some observations about your counterpart Thein Sein, the president of Burma. He may be a reformer for the past couple of years, but for decades before that he was one of the high ranking commanders- eventually a general- in the brutal military regime that ran the country for years, a military that still retains ultimate political power under the current constitution. Until recently, Thein Sein’s political career more closely paralleled Bashar Assad’s rather than, say Mitch McConnell’s. If Assad were to suddenly stop his slaughter of Syrian civilians and institute limited political reforms, would you visit Syria as part of a pivot of American policy in the Middle East?
One other point about Burma’s president, he was for a time the Triangle commander, which means he was in charge of part of the Shan State. The Shan State is one of the world’s leading heroin production centers in the world as well as a major source for methamphetamines for Asia. Thein Sein had close relations with some of the drug trafficking groups and undoubtedly profited personally from those relationships. In his book The Trouser People Andrew Marshall describes a visit to an area controlled by Lin Mingxian, one of Thein Sein’s drug trafficking associates. Despite being heavily involved in the drug trade Mingxian had an anti-narcotic museum in a town under his control. In the museum was a photo of Lin Mingxian shaking hands with former Republican US Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert who was visiting the area on a DEA sponsored junket to review Burma’s “progress” in the War on Drugs. Oh the ironies! As Marshall observed, Lin Mingxian was aware of something apparently Hasert wasn’t; if you shake hands with enough prominent American politicians the blood comes of your hand and sticks on theirs. Despite his reforms Thein Sein still heads a government that is literally at war with its own people, and continues to disrupt the lives of the rural poor, whatever their ethnicity. When you visit Burma, are you sure that Senator McConnell got all the blood off Thein Sein’s hand, or might there still be some left for you?
P.S. Aiontay is a native American Indian and a keen observer of the indigenous ethnic nationalities in Burma. He has voted the President Obama twice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Kachinland News’ policy.