Outlooks on Burma: Democracy, Human Rights, and Regional Significance

June 11: Partnership for a Secure America (PSA) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted an off-the-record roundtable lunch discussion on “Outlooks on Burma: Democracy, Human Rights, and Regional Significance.” In November 2010, Burma held its first democratic elections after nearly 50 years under military junta rule. Still, challenges to Burma’s democratic transition abound amid a staggering refugee crisis, religious and ethnic tensions in its border regions, and widespread discontent at the slow rate of economic and political reforms in the country.


Priscilla Clapp – former Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy in Burma (1999-2002); and Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace

Susan Hayward – Interim Director, Religion and Peacebuilding, Center for Governance, Law and Society, United States Institute of Peace

Walter Lohman – Director, Asian Studies Center, Heritage Foundation; and former Senior Vice President and Executive Director, U.S.-ASEAN Business Council

Long considered a pariah state, Burma is now recognized for its democratic reform that began in 2011 and has led to significant social, political, and economic change over a relatively short period. In May 2012, President Obama announced that the U.S. would begin to lift economic sanctions on Burma, making way for stronger bilateral trade relations with a country whose primary trading partner previously had been China. Burma’s geostrategic position is central to maintaining U.S. influence in the region. However, the slow pace of some political reforms, ongoing fighting in some border states, and the emergence of new forms of violent conflict in the transition period have caused concern for the U.S., especially regarding ethnic, religious, and civil rights and progress towards a sustainable peace in the country.

Looming on the horizon are presidential elections, currently scheduled to take place in November 2015. Well known opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who has recently faced domestic and international criticism for her perceived inaction in challenging Buddhist nationalist groups, is currently ineligible to serve as president unless constitutional provisions are amended and passed through parliament. Some observers are concerned that electoral politics may exacerbate identity-based conflicts, that ongoing security concerns could disrupt elections, and that the government will not be able to ensure a free and fair process.

In recent years, monk-led Buddhist nationalist movements, including the 969 Movement led by Buddhist extremist monk Ashin Wirathu, have fostered Buddhist/Muslim conflict, driven exclusionary legislation and sparked specific violent clashes throughout the country, including those between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists living in the western state of Rakhine. The Rohingya, excluded since 1982 from the official list of 135 recognized national races eligible for full citizenship, are now fleeing Burma en masse, many of whom set sail on overcrowded ships headed toward Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The U.S. has pledged $3 million to help the International Organization for Migration deal with this crisis and has called on Burma to make greater institutional reforms to address the root causes of the conflict.

This panel will discuss the myriad of issues affecting Burma and how they impact U.S. relations with Burma and the greater Southeast Asia region.

This was the 22nd event in the USIP/PSA Congressional Briefing Series – Topics on International Conflict Resolution and Prevention, an educational program designed to provide congressional staff with opportunities to engage leading experts and fellow Capitol Hill staffers in bipartisan forums. The program aims to build cross-party relationships, encourage bipartisan dialogue, and equip staff with new perspectives on critical issues in the international conflict resolution and prevention field.