The United States President Barack Obama addressed the Rohingya crisis this week, stressing Myanmar needs to end discrimination against Rohingya Muslims if it wants to succeed in its “transition to a democracy.”
However, is the Southeast Asian nation really striving to become a democratic state?
While speaking to a group of young Asians invited to the White House, Obama said the U.S. wants to make sure Rohingya migrants, packed in dilapidated vessels escaping violence in Myanmar, are relocated.
"The Rohingya have been discriminated against significantly, and that's part of the reason they're fleeing,” he stated. "I think one of the most important things is to put an end to discrimination against people because of what they look like or what their faith is. And the Rohingya have been discriminated against. And that’s part of the reason they’re fleeing."
While what Obama is suggesting makes perfect sense, there is one huge problem with his statement.
First, to “put an end to discrimination,” there must, at least, be an acknowledgement of the fact that discrimination exists. But the Burmese government for years has refused to admit that the Rohingya are persecuted under its watch. In fact, the country’s President Thein Sein even refuses to use the term “Rohingya” in his speeches.
The inexplicable deafening silence and inaction from Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is far more frustrating than the perpetrators’ crimes. It seems that she has decided to avoid the issue and take a neutral stance over the blatant violation of human rights.
How does Obama then expect such shamelessly oblivious leaders to do anything to end violence against the embattled minority?
From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar was led by a military junta that ruled with an iron fist in the face of international condemnation.
While the situation changed to a considerable extent after President Thein Sein made reforms, such as holding elections, releasing political prisoners and legalizing political parties, human rights abuses stepped up under his rule. And his constant refusal to help the Rohingya – which put them into the hands of human traffickers and led to drowning deaths in Southeast Asian waters – is proof enough that he is no better than the likes of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
After lifting key economic sanctions on “good friend” Myanmar in 2012, White House officials said last year that “continued cooperation remains the best way forward” for “successful democratic transition.”
If this is how the country treats its minorities, perhaps it’s time the U.S. reassessed its budding relationship with Myanmar.