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The President’s Message for Myanmar | Commentary

President Barack Obama is in Asia for a week of summit politics. During this week of high-profile engagements, one small country will play an outsized role. This trip comes at an important moment for the U.S. relationship with Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

When Myanmar’s government undertook an unexpected transition toward democracy, the administration did the right thing by opening the diplomatic door to the long-isolated regime. Since then, Myanmar has made remarkable strides. The insular military junta, which long exerted obsessive control over every aspect of daily life, took steps to slowly begun to open the political process and encourage both investment and interaction from the outside world.

Regrettably, the reform process has now stalled. Next week’s East Asia Summit in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw presents the president with a timely opportunity to press the country’s leaders to honor their reform commitments, and get the process back on track.

I would urge the President to emphasize three main issues:

First, the government of Myanmar must make good on its pledge to ensure a free and fair election in 2015. That election will be viewed around the world as a litmus test of Myanmar’s reform efforts. Washington will be watching closely over the coming months to see if Myanmar makes necessary constitutional reforms including those championed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently prohibited by the constitution from running for president. The government must also provide for election-related transparency and accountability, and reverse a disturbing deterioration of media freedoms.

Second, Myanmar’s government must move away from its legacy of oppression and promote greater inclusiveness across its society. A first step would be releasing all prisoners of conscience and child soldiers serving in the army and border guard. The government must also take tangible steps to advance the peace process with marginalized minority ethnic groups, including in the troubled Shan and Kachin states. The government’s in-name-only ceasefire is not enough. It must also commit to meaningful federalism that provides these groups a voice in the national debate. Moreover, the government must provide real protections to the Muslim Rohingya community, both as a matter of human rights and also to preclude radicalization by foreign terrorist organizations such as the newly rebranded al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent.

Lastly, the president should underscore that this summit in Naypyidaw provides Myanmar’s government a unique opportunity to demonstrate regional leadership after decades of isolation and disengagement. In its role as Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it will be critically important for Myanmar to demonstrate boldness and impartiality on a range of economic and security issues facing the region. Myanmar can encourage ASEAN nations to build on their recent joint denunciation of extremist organizations and constructively address other contentious issues close to home. As Chair, Myanmar will play a key role in brokering concluding statements from these meetings. It should use this standing to press for reaffirmation of international norms such as freedom of navigation, and to urge ASEAN to take steps to reduce tensions, and make progress on the stalled South China Sea Code of Conduct.

Why should the United States be so concerned about the fortunes of Myanmar?

In addition to our support for the basic rights and dignity of people everywhere, the United States has a keen interest in developments across the Asia-Pacific in the years ahead. As a Pacific power, we benefit when new markets open across the region and we will be better off with partners who play by the same set of rules and adhere to the same values and norms. By helping bring Myanmar into the community of responsible nations, we also demonstrate to other closed regimes around the world that reform and transition toward democracy will be embraced and rewarded.

Congress will continue to play an important role during this critical period, limiting deeper ties with Myanmar until Naypyidaw takes credible steps to enact reforms. In the same way, the president should seize this opportunity to hold Myanmar’s leaders to their commitments. The country is sitting at a crossroads, and with the United States continuing to press for a responsible democratic transition, we can help ensure that the country remains on a path toward openness, freedom and prosperity.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y. is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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