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Burma, Human Rights Issues Backdrop to Obama Asia Trip

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A national election scheduled to be conducted by Burma's military government on November 7 will occur as President Barack Obama is in India, the world's largest democracy.  India is the first leg of a presidential trip that includes Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. U.S. officials are stepping up their criticism ahead of the election, and human rights groups are urging President Obama not to allow rights issues to take a back seat to bilateral and economic issues during the trip.

President Obama's Asia travel will be framed by two important dates in military-ruled Burma.

On November 7, the first national election in Burma in two decades is scheduled to take place.  The last was in 1990, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming victory, but was never allowed to take power.  

Its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has remained under house arrest for most of the past two decades.  Burma's military forced the NLD to disband after it announced a boycott.

The United States, Western nations and human rights groups believe the elections will be a sham, and have called on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to ensure that voting will be free and fair.

On November 13, just as President Obama is in Japan for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit, Aung San Suu Kyi's latest period of house arrest is due to expire.

There is widespread skepticism that she will be freed.  In unusually strong language, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley accused Burma's military of trying to manipulate global public opinion about the election, by hinting that Aung San Suu Kyi would be freed after it occurs.

"This is a craven manipulation by Burma. How convenient that they are hinting that she might be released after an election that is unlikely to be fair, free or credible," said Crowley.

Human rights groups are urging President Obama not to allow rights issues in general to take a back seat to affairs of state during his trip.

"Amnesty International is urging President Obama to raise human rights abuses in Burma, and Sri Lanka, during his trip [to] India," said T. Kumar, Asia director for Amnesty International USA. "Whether he will raise it privately or publicly is a matter of question.  But we expect the media [and] the press to ask questions.  And we want to urge President Obama to give a strong message when those questions are raised, in terms of the elections in Burma as well as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."

The administration has pursued a policy of engagement with Burma's military, hoping this would be more effective in bringing about freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners.  The U.S. has unilateral economic sanctions in effect against Burma.

Jared Genser, an attorney with Washington-based "Freedom Now," says engagement has been ineffective, and suggests President Obama will have to get tougher.

"Our policy has suffered from that of the exact same problems faced by the U.N. trying to do this for 20 years, that we have had no benchmarks, no time lines and no consequences for our engagement with the [Burmese] regime, and under such circumstances we have learned repeatedly that engagement without those elements is not going to get us anywhere," said Genser.

Earlier this year, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, William Burns, said:  "India's voice as a successful democracy is important in a region where courageous leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi struggle in the non-violent footsteps of Gandhi."

At a recent White House briefing, Burns was non-commital about whether Mr. Obama may discuss Burma when he meets with Prime Minister Singh, but said the overall U.S emphasis on human rights issues will continue.

"We have a very active dialogue with India about a whole range of regional issues and that does include Burma, and so again I can't predict exactly what the conversations are going to be, but I think you will continue to see a strong emphasis from the president and from the U.S. on human rights issues across Asia and the Pacific," he said.

Walter Andersen, with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says India generally takes a positive view toward human rights issues, but no longer speaks as loudly about Burma.

"Indians until about 10 years ago had a reduced relationship with Myanmar [Burma] because of human rights issues and its support for the dissident movement and the democracy movement there.  But that shifted, became more pragmatic, because of Chinese moves in a very substantial way to develop oil resources an other things in Myanmar.  So the Indians responded by upgrading their relationship [with Burma's military government] and toning down their criticism.  That has been their policy for the last several years," said Andersen.

In Washington recently, 1998 Nobel laureate for economics, Amartya Kumar Sen, called India's policy on Burma "partly in imitation of China", and asserted that a lack of global public discussion about the upcoming election in Burma will strengthen the hand of the military.

"A propaganda victory for the regime, by muddying the water for democracy in Burma now, can put things hugely back for the real battle that has to be waged for the long-suffering Burmese people at large, of all ethnic groups, within the country," he said.

It's not clear how the outcome of the November 7 election in Burma might alter U.S. engagement policy, an approach the Obama White House has said it is committed to continuing beyond the election.

Also unclear is where the administration is on appointing a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, a step required under U.S. sanctions-related legislation. The U.S., however, pushing for creation of an international commission to investigate human rights violations in Burma.

In a speech at the East-West Center in Hawaii, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to signal that Washington intends to maintain, if not increase, pressure on Burma's military.

"And one thing we have learned over the last few years is that democracy is more than elections.  And we will make clear to Burma's leaders, old and new alike that they must break from the policies of the past," she said.

Secretary Clinton spoke at the start of a nearly two week trip that will take her to Asia and Pacific nations, part of which will coincide with President Obama's presence in Asia. 


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