The rapid political reform of Myanmar’s leadership has earned the country a reputation as a “development darling,” a country quickly changing from an international pariah to a beacon of opportunity. But, as we have seen with historical “darlings,” the positive steps of reform (and the media coverage of them) can often hide widespread human rights violations.
In 2009, the Obama administration began a policy of engagement with Myanmar, which led to a string of diplomatic successes. Since then, the country's military junta has retired, elections were held for the first time in 20 years, and a number of political prisoners, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, were released. The United States greeted such changes by systematically easing economic sanctions, and increasing diplomatic contact. In late 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, becoming the first senior American official to visit the country in more than 50 years. Clinton's trip was followed by an unprecedented November 2012 visit by President Barack Obama, making him the first sitting U.S. president to enter the formerly reclusive Southeast Asian state.
The United States' intervention has made it easier for foreign entities to conduct business with Myanmar. Consequently, President U Thein Sein, a former military ruler who has traded his uniform for a civilian leader’s suit, has been globe-trotting, courting foreign direct investment into the previously isolationist state. Obama, for his part, has lobbied for greater international economic engagement with the country, stating that its reforms provide “incredible development opportunities,” while urging the country to continue its “remarkable journey.”
But such "remarkable journeys" have gone poorly in the past. Take the example of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Kagame was called a “visionary leader” by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and “one of the greatest leaders of our time” by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Kagame has been responsible for leading Rwanda since the aftermath of its genocidal war, and has turned the country into an example of economic opportunity in East Africa, despite extraordinary geographic disadvantages. However, Kagame is wholly intolerant of dissent, and has, over his tenure, overseen the destruction of the country's political environment. As the Economist put it, Kagame, “allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe.” In spite of this, President Kagame has no shortage of Western backers, including Clinton and Blair, and powerful private individuals such as Bill Gates and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Kagame’s rampant destruction of Rwanda's political space and his interference in the affairs of neighboring states have been widely overlooked due to his economic successes.
In Myanmar, history is repeating itself. As Thein Sein makes the rounds, informing the world that the country is open for business, his government has been complicit in a tyranny against Rohingya Muslims that some say amounts to genocide. Thien Sein's government has denied citizenship to the Rohingya people, imposed a limit on the number of children members of the group can have (while not imposing a similar limit for Buddhists living in the same areas), and cultivated a culture of impunity for perpetrators of violence against the group.
The international community has been largely silent about these issues, instead choosing to hail the successes of reform.
Myanmar has made incredible strides from the country it was just a few years ago, thanks to diplomatic engagement. The United States had previously attempted to isolate the Southeast Asian state for over five decades, to no avail. While Myanmar has taken drastic steps forward, it still has quite a ways to go, and for the sake of the Rohingya, the international community should not pretend otherwise. While it is right for the international community to praise the good of its darlings, it must not forget that there is yet more good to be done.