Watching President Obama travel to Myanmar this week reminds me of 20 years earlier sitting across the table from US Acting Secretary of State Thomas Eagleburger at breakfast in London in August 1992 and asking for more action to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Unfortunately, the response was inadequate and failed on both strategic and human rights level. I had this sense that Eagleburger was still under the impression that Slobodan Milosevic was someone the US could and wanted to deal with as regional partner. As communism collapsed, Eagleburger was one of the promoters of the view that Milosevic was a reformer, part of a new pragmatist generation in the former Yugoslavia. In the end, Milosevic proved himself more opportunist than pragmatist. It is perhaps difficult to judge whether Milosevic was a true Serb nationalist, but he employed ethnic chauvinism to wage aggression and genocide against neighbors and promote his authoritarian rule over Serbia & Montenegro.
Myanmar’s current President U Thein Sein is marketed as someone the globe’s democracies can work with – who is inclined to counter the ethnic chauvinism and cleansing now underway in Rakhine state against the Rohingya Muslim minority. However, Thein is at the tip of an authoritarian junta, which is still guaranteed its paramount and controlling role over Burma’s Government by an outdated and non-democratic constitution. Thein and his Government have also failed to be responsive to various peace and rapprochement initiatives. In fact, NGO workers for UN affiliated agencies and Doctors Without Borders have been prosecuted in trials lacking transparency and due process. Multiple sources from the ground indicate that high level Government Burma officials espouse one view for global public consumption but that the dirty work of instigation, terror and killing is left to Myanmar’s military as well as paramilitary and “religious zealots.”
The Rohingya are only one of several minorities that has been under assault. The mostly Christian Karen, Kachin, Shan and several other ethnic minorities have faced rounds of repression and conflict. The Rohingya though are the easiest targets as they have been internally marketed as “non-Burmese” who entered the country illegally. They are subjected to various other crude bias with one Myanmar official describing them as obviously non-Burmese because they are darker and “ugly as ogres.” However, the Rohingya have actually lived on these lands for decades and centuries even before India and Burma were separated under British Colonial rule in the 1930’s. The Rohingya had Burma citizenship until the ascending Myanmar junta successfully launched a campaign to take it away in the 1970’s and early 80’s. The Rohingya have again become a convenient target for the Myanmar junta to rally support under the banner of ethnic purity and chauvinism as well as repelling a non-existent Muslim and/or Christian threat, as opportunism affords.
Many of Myanmar’s political dissidents have remained in gulag type prisons – only this last week almost 500 were released by the junta in anticipation of President Obama’s visit. The role of former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, (ASSK), held for years under house detention, has been in some eyes apologetic for the current Myanmar Government’s official discrimination and repression.  Unlike Serbia’s longstanding women human rights activists Sonya Biserko and Natasa Kandic, ASSK has been at best ambiguous. Unlike Ms. Biserko and Kandic, ASSK has become a politician contesting elections in the new presumably more open political system of Myanmar. Ethnic politics wins votes, as Milosevic proved. While Ms. Biserko and Kandic have not been recognized by a Nobel Peace Prize, they have been much more consistent with their commitment to the rule of law, justice and a truly more open and democratic Serbia. They understand that Serbians as a whole incurred a great cost along with minorities and Serbia’s neighbors in the dalliance that Washington and Brussels promoted with Milosevic (well after the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina and until the effort to also cleanse Kosovo).
As President Obama travels to Myanmar, it is an opportunity to secure new markets and access to valuable resources no doubt. However, President Obama also must be aware that he could be embracing the Milosevic of this generation or at least providing a further veneer of legitimacy to the chauvinist, authoritarian regime that stands behind U Thein Sein. The wisdom of President Obama’s trip now to Myanmar can be questioned. However, the US President cannot overlook the human rights abuses and ethnic chauvinism that is in conflict with US values, strategic interests as well as international standards that have evolved since the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia and Bosnia genocides.
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey

TWITTER @MuhamedSacirbey