When President Obama used his inaugural address in 2009 to tell the repressive dictators of the world that they “are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he had little reason to suspect that Burma — the former British colony that had been ruled by a military junta for fifty years — would take him up on his offer.
But on a swing through Burma on Monday — the first by a sitting U.S. president — Obama made it clear the progress Burma has made since he made his offer is the epitome of the exchange he had in mind. In a speech at the University of Yangon in the Burmese cultural capital of Rangoon, Obama lauded Burmese President Thein Sein for the democratic reforms he has made since taking office in 2011, even while singling out the human rights abuses that remain. In a foreign policy milieu bereft of clear Manichaean choices, Burma offered Obama a model to hold up to other countries now wavering of the precipice of democracy.
Burma’s reforms in the past two years have been abrupt and dramatic. A former British colony, Burma declared independence in 1948. A military junta seized control of the country in 1962, and ushered in 50 years of iron-fisted rule, repression, and poverty. Stories from these 50 years read like a catalogue of classical human rights abuses, including genocide, systematic rape, child labor, slavery, human trafficking, and suppression of free speech. When President Thein Sein was elected in 2011, he dissolved the military junta, and ushered in a striking series of reforms.
The National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi and advocates for multi-party democracy and adherence to international human rights law, was allowed to compete in April’s elections, and won 43 of 45 available seats. After being under house arrest for years following a crackdown by the junta in 1989, Suu Kyi was released in 2010. She has been permitted to speak relatively freely about human rights abuses, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The U.S. has rewarded Burma proportionally for these reforms, not just with a presidential visit, but also with a formal easing of economic sanctions and an exchange of ambassadors. In his Monday address, Obama even called the country Myanmar — the name the country’s ruling generals gave it during the 1989 crackdown — instead of Burma, the old name, favored by dissidents.
Despite the reforms Burma has made, work remains, much of it in the sticky arena of human rights and bearing the hard-to-shake vestiges of colonialism. Burma’s western Rakhine State has seen intense clashes in recent months between Buddhist Rakhines (Burma is 89% Buddhist) and Rohingya Muslims, with widespread rioting, looting, and violence between the two sides. Although the conflict has drawn widespread condemnation from both sides, international human rights arbiters like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have criticized the Burmese government for isolating the Rohingya in camps, preventing them from receiving humanitarian aid, and perpetrating the bogus notion that the Rohingya are illegal Bangladeshi migrants, despite having lived in Burma for centuries.
How Burma contends with this colonially-induced hatred can perhaps be instructive for Arab and other countries electing their first post-post-colonial leaders. As in many former colonies, the British pitted ethnic groups in Burma against each other in an attempt to keep prospective opposition fractured. When the Japanese occupied Burma in the Second World War, Burmese nationalists aligned with them in the hopes the Japanese would stave off the British for good and then grant them independence, while the British aligned with the Rohingya, who fought against the puppet Burmese government installed by the Japanese.
The fact that the conflict between the two groups continues to this day is a warning signal to other burgeoning democracies. For the same reasons the colonists once did, the strongmen who replaced them often let ethnic tensions fester, and used nationalism and anti-colonialism as the only rallying cry to unify both sides — a strategy of just enough division and just enough unification. As democratically-elected leaders replace these strongmen, like Thein Sein in Burma has replaced the junta, they would do well not to let ethnic tension be the dividing factor their predecessors encouraged. Such tension and violence will stunt their efforts to join the first world economies, as instability will deter foreign investment.
President Obama alluded to this imperative in Monday’s address. “Only the people of this country ultimately can define your union, can define what it means to be a citizen of this country,” he said. “But I have confidence that as you do that you can draw on [your] diversity as a strength and not a weakness. Your country will be stronger because of many different cultures, but you have to seize that opportunity. You have to recognize that strength.”
In a trip cloaked in the trope of emergence, this note of caution was a potent reminder that to emerge is not to arrive, and to arrive is never permanent, but must always be an evolution to a more perfect union.