When most U.S. citizens hear about reformers taking on military dictators, the story seems clear. Things must be getting better. We felt this way as we watched recent developments in Burma and Egypt, among others. Unfortunately, history is filled with those who are genuine reformers and those who are not. We seem to be entering an age of reformers who are not. Why so much entrenched power?
When President Obama first visited Burma, hopes were high. The country seemed to be evolving from a military government into a civilian one with appropriate interest and protection for both the majority and the ethnic peoples along its border. Moving the military back into their barracks is not an easy task, but it was done. The people of Burma were breathing easier and better than they had for a long time under military rule. Hope was in the air, even for the country's Rohingya minority.
Aung San Suu Kyi was now in Parliament and had a chance to run for the presidency as the leader of her party, the National League for Democracy. Some decent process would be put into place for the Rohingas to finally vote in a country where they had lived for centuries. Some light was coming into the darkness of Burma. The meeting between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Obama made for a nice photo op for two Nobel Prize winners, but as Burma goes into election mode in late 2015, progress has been made on none of these promises and hopes.
What is going so wrong? The Constitution that was written by and for the military a few years ago outlawed anyone becoming head of government that married an outsider. Aung San Suu Kyi's lovely husband was a British citizen. It was assumed that this ban would be lifted to allow the most popular person in Burma to run for the presidency. The new government in civilian clothes with military boots on still said no. No, we will not lift that ban. Still, and just as discomforting as this is, Aung San Suu Kyi then as the leader of her party, chose the people to run on the party's slate. Most, if not all, of the 88 generation, who had done so much and suffered so much for this party were excluded from the slate. It seems like everyone is turning on everyone and Burma is not the better for it. ASSK said she was no human rights activist; she was and is a politician. The decision to omit 88 generation leaders confirms that remark.
Another reformer came to power in Egypt by ousting a legitimately elected government. General al Sisi is another one who took off the cloak of military man and donned the suit of an executive, all the while keeping his stomping boots on. Thousands have gone to jail thousands are threatened with the death penalty. Tourism is evaporated. Egypt, once the thinking-power center of the Arab world, has turned into a very big jail, and the steel fist of the military roam the streets looking for honest and decent journalists and citizens.
When Secretary John Kerry visited President al Sisi of Egypt, he raised the issues of human rights with him and hoped for some progress. General Sisi had toppled Dr. Morsi in a military coup because he felt the Moslem Brotherhood's leader, and elected president of Egypt, simply went too far with policies of complicating the Egyptian society with the Moslem Brotherhood aims and desires. Secretary Kerry knew what we human rights groups knew, namely, that al Sisi government is a massive human rights violator.
Burma and Egypt are being led by former army men, generals to be exact. Both enjoy American support and foreign aid. Egypt has been a consistent ally and Burma's reforms, as well as fear of a rising China, have brought the country back into the U.S. fold. These so called reform governments don't reflect the standards that America should expect from its allies. Now reformers to our American minds connote improvement in and strong leadership on issues of human rights, protection of the innocent, fair and free elections, fairness in the justice system, protection of journalists and calming down the nation so that tourists will pour money into the economy of both these nations.
There has been a de-prioritizing of human rights in American foreign policy. The U.S.'s embrace of these reformers might be a symptom of this. Balancing against China and appeasing Israel may seem like they should take priority over choosing the most moral friends but our embrace of human rights abusers is often our undoing.
For so long the U.S. policy towards Burma was driven by moral considerations about human rights. Now that our friends are getting a shot at power, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya has been met with only a few statements. The U.S. should not be so quick to fall in line.
Burma and Egypt are headed in the same long, sad and disastrous path as the U.S. backed presidency of Pinochet in Chile, where American power helped him get into the Presidency by a coup and the nation dipped into a long 16 year history of needless blood shedding,. Like Pinochet, Burma and Egypt are led by army men who take off their military clothes in exchange for an iron fist.
Our President and our Secretary of State must look back on these visits and evaluate their ability to influence these two military-led nations. Surely with the difficulties of handling the Middle East and the rise of China, there is not much time for such evaluations. The big picture does matter; relationships with Israel for Egypt and the same for Burma with China hinder and shape the dialogue for real reform. But then, we must also change our view and see these military people as military people who do not deserve to run any nation. The USA should start backing away from these human rights monsters in Egypt and Burma.