Burma (MNN) — U.S. President Barack Obama wraps up his three-day visit to Burma with a stern warning for the country’s leaders: more change is needed.
“When you hear, in diplomatic circles, that ‘We applaud your reforms but there’s room for improvement,’ that’s diplomatic speak for ‘You better get your act together or we’re going to pull out our big business,'” says Steve Gumaer, founder and CEO of Partners Relief and Development.
Burma played host for the ASEAN and East Asia summits this week, bringing the heads of 18 world power nations into Naypyidaw, the national capital. Before arriving in Burma on Wednesday, Obama outlined his priorities for The Irrawaddy, an online regional magazine.
The president planned on taking Burmese authorities to task on several issues, including constitutional reforms, democratic freedoms, and the protection of minority rights. Two years ago when Obama visited Burma–the first sitting U.S. President to do so, President Thein Sein vowed to address the abuse of over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) State.
Not only has Sein failed to do so, the situation is steadily worsening. But Gumaer is encouraged by President Obama’s stance on the issue.
“I’ve been very impressed with his clear statements that these reforms, though they were applauded in the beginning…the warmth is wearing off,” notes Gumaer.
“Obama is using some of his political clout, the political clout of the United States, at the risk of offending the other political powers that we’re trying to cultivate a harmonious relationship with or contain, like China and India.”
Take, for example, Obama’s description of the ethnic minority group in-question. Gumaer says the president referred to the group as “Rohingya;” to date, Burma’s government has refused to grant the Rohingya people citizenship.
“Using [Rohingya] is acknowledging that they are a rightful resident of the country,” notes Gumaer. “It is also a deliberate denial of the regime’s will, which is to cease from using that word. They call them Bengalis instead of Rohingya.”
While Obama’s messaging may be an encouraging sign, can it actually bring about positive change for Burma’s oppressed people groups?
“It will make a difference for those people IF he follows through and promotes either sanctions or isolation from American markets,” Gumaer notes.
Why does it matter?
To many, the government’s abuse of the Rohingya people is equivalent to genocide. Not only do authorities deny the Rohingya citizenship, they also place great restrictions on movement, marriage, access to healthcare, and education. As a result, hundreds of desperate Rohingya are risking their lives daily to leave Burma by sea.
Partners sees the government’s cruelty first-hand as they share Christ with ethnic minorities and help meet basic physical needs. While the Rohingya are the focus of this story, Partners puts Christ’s love into action throughout Burma.
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the plight of Burma’s Rohingya people and share specific ways you can give them hope in 2015.