WASHINGTON—The White House on Thursday appeared to defend steps being taken by the Burmese government to address rising sectarian violence in the country, even as human rights bodies stepped up their protest against Monday’s visit of US President Barack Obama.
“[The Burmese] government has taken some responsible steps in trying to defuse the violence,” the National Security Council Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power told reporters during a conference call on Thursday.
At the same time, she said there are long-term structural issues that need to be addressed in terms of the recognition of the Rohingya people as citizens and the welfare generally of all Buddhists, Muslims and others living in Arakan (Rakhine) State.
Defending Obama’s decision to travel to Burma, Power said the trip makes a lot of sense given that the president has long indicated a willingness to engage with countries that show concretely a will to reform and make political progress.
“The reason we engage is not to reward but to lock down progress and to push on areas where progress is urgently needed,” she said, giving a couple of examples of why this applies in the current context of Burma.
“First, we’ve seen, as many of you know, some progress that the government has made in establishing ceasefires with various ethnic groups, not long-lasting solutions but ceasefires that mean that fewer people are hurting day-to-day and genuine progress,” she said.
Referring to the steps being taken by the Burmese government with regards the Rohingya issue, Power said this is “an example of a little bit of progress in the ethnic sort of area overall, but a very, very severe and important issue that we get an opportunity now to go and engage on at the ultimate level, at the highest possible level.”
Similarly, she emphasizes that regarding the Kachin State conflict, where a ceasefire has not been signed, humanitarian access must first be ensured before renewed efforts to agree a cessation of violence and then long-term political grievances must be addressed.
But Power emphasized that there is still a long way to go. “I mean, remarkable progress [has been made], but many, many political prisoners are still behind bars, and varying lists out there, but at least several hundred political prisoners, we believe,” she said.
“As the political space opens up, one of President Obama’s key messages, of course, is that there is a need not simply for government officials to talk to one another and the executive branch to talk to the Parliament, but for the youth, for legal professionals, for businesspeople, for soldiers in the rank and file of the military, for teachers, for the citizens of Burma to take ownership of this process now as it enters its next phase and to build the checks and balances that are really the requirement in this country for these reforms to be sustainable and for this to become a true democracy over time.”
Meanwhile, in a letter to the president, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged Obama to raise the issues of religious freedom and continuing abuses that arise from ongoing ethnic and communal violence during his trip to Burma.
“The alarming state of affairs faced by Burma’s ethnic nationalities reveals how much farther Burma’s new government must go in advancing reform and protecting universal human rights,” said the USCIRF Chair Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett in the letter.
“Under military rule, Burma was one of the world’s worst human rights and religious freedom violators. Under civilian rule, it has yet to put that image behind it and fully affirm its ethnic and religious diversity by upholding human rights, including religious freedom, for everyone.”