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President Obama’s November 2014 Visit to Burma

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ENAC Briefing Paper No. 2
November 2014

United States President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend the East Asian Summit and US-ASEAN Summit in Naypyitaw November 12-14. He is expected to meet with President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw and with National League for Democracy Chairperson Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon on November 14.

In his May speech at West Point, President Obama hailed Burma as a success story, twice emphasizing the phrase “American leadership” and its role in promoting political reforms and national reconciliation in Burma. The United States has an important role in Burma’s peace process, including the negotiation of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), holding of a meaningful national political dialogue, and implementation of all the agreements between the government and the ethnic armed resistance organizations. Although Burma currently faces many challenges, and President Obama will attend meetings for a number of purposes, it is important to recognize that Burma’s path toward genuine democracy and economic reform will be uneasy unless the political grievances of the ethnic nationalities are addressed. President Obama’s trip to Burma presents an opportunity for him to demonstrate his leadership to help the peace process move forward, increasing the prospects for peace, stability, and prosperity for all the people of Burma and the region.
There are five actions President Obama should take during his visit to Burma to support the peace process:

1. In addition to meeting with government officials and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President Obama should meet with ethnic leaders, including Shan Nationalities League for Democracy Chairman Khun Htun Oo, whose party received the second most votes in the 1990 elections.

2. During his recent phone call with President Thein Sein, President Obama stressed that “every effort should be made to conclude a national ceasefire in the short term”. This message will be important to reiterate when the Presidents meet in November, supplemented by the message that any NCA will need to be robust enough to ensure that hostilities do not resume. The NCA will be the first step in Burma’s peace process. It would lay the foundation for a political dialogue process that will address the underlying grievances that have led to more than six decades of civil wars.

3. President Obama can build confidence among stakeholders in the peace process by encouraging the international community and Burmese leadership to accept international attendance at NCA talks and the signing of any agreement by international witnesses.

4. During President Obama’s previous visit to Burma in November 2012, President Thein Sein’s government pledged to “continue to pursue a durable ceasefire in Kachin State and other areas to de-escalate violent conflicts.” Despite this pledge, the Burma military escalated its offensive in the North a month later, including by shelling and bombing civilian areas. The military continues its offensives against the Kachn Independent Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, and other ethnic armed resistance organizations, including organizations such as the Shan State Progress Party that had reached bilateral ceasefire agreements. President Obama should communicate to President Thein Sein that any additional loosening of sanctions or granting of other economic benefits will first require the cessation of violence by the military, the end of human rights abuses and war crimes, the establishment of effective civilian control over the military, and agreement on a peace process that provides guarantees against renewed fighting, including a military code of conduct and joint monitoring, as well as a sincere political dialogue process.

5. President Obama can address the importance of amending the 2008 constitution and holding free and fair elections in 2015 following the recently cancelled by-elections. The 2008 constitution continues to be a stumbling block during peace talks, as it protects the political interests of the military leaders while denying equal rights, self-determination, or democracy to the people of Burma.

During President Obama’s previous visit to Burma, President Thein Sein said, “I want to use the exact word used by the President Obama. We will continue to move forward. We will move forward.” President Obama should hold President Thein Sein and his government to this commitment—that rather than moving backward toward greater conflict, the military should cease its offensive operations, the President and Commander-in-Chief should sign a sustainable NCA negotiated with the ethnic armed resistance organizations, and the parties should engage in a political dialogue process that will address the long-standing grievances of the ethnic nationalities.

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