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Not a minor matter

Obama must urge Burma to solve the ethnic problem in Kachin and Rakhine. Nehginpao Kipgen writes.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2012 21:45 IST

On November 8, the White House confirmed that President Barack Obama will visit Burma, the first ever by a sitting US president, from November 17 to 20. The trip will be his first international trip since his re-election and he will be joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who visited the country in 2011. During his stay, Obama is scheduled to meet President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition and chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as representatives of civil society organisations.

The visit shows the US' continued support for human rights and democratic reforms. This support can give a new boost to the initiatives of President Thein Sein in the face of opposition to the reform process by some military hardliners. The visit could also provide incentives for both the Rakhine state and the central government to help end the conflict there. Obama could use the visit to urge both the government and the opposition to work concertedly for a solution.

On the other hand, some worry that the visit will overshadow the ongoing armed conflict in the Kachin state, which has displaced thousands of people. According to the latest figures of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there are 283 political prisoners in Kachin.

While the Obama administration should be given credit for pursuing a dual-track policy that opened the door for diplomacy, one must also acknowledge the contribution of the Republican administration under President George Bush. Among others, the Bush administration successfully placed Burma in the formal agenda of the United Nations Security Council on September 15, 2006.

After its independence on January 4, 1948, Burma had a parliamentary democracy until the military coup in 1962. The central government was fragile due to insurgency problems. The ethnic minority groups demanded secession from the union when the Panglong agreement on autonomy was not upheld.

Although ethnic minorities have dropped their original demand for secession, the demand for autonomy remains intact. The present government of the Union Solidarity and Development Party has reached ceasefire agreements with the majority of the armed groups, but there is no guarantee for amicable political settlement.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the present quasi-civilian government will amend the 2008 constitution to remove the inherent role of military in politics. There is uncertainty whether the 2015 election will be held free and fair. There is also no guarantee that the constitution that guarantees 25% of parliament seats to the military will be amended.

Under such circumstances, it is uncertain whether the judiciary can function independently. There is also uncertainty if the former and present military leaders will allow an impartial inquiry of human rights abuses and any possible criminal acts of the past military regime.

Despite the lingering uncertainties, there is room for national reconciliation if the central government led by ethnic Burmese and ethnic minorities cooperate. In order for mutual trust to develop, minority problems need to be resolved. President Obama should emphasise the urgency for such solution. The US must understand that minority problems outweigh differences between the NLD and the military.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum
The views expressed by the author are personal