On Monday, Myanmar President Thein Sein had a historic meeting with President Barack Obama -- the first time a head of state from the country has visited the White House in nearly 50 years. Obama praised Thein Sein's leadership "in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform," before discussing joint projects that U.S. assistance will focus on in Myanmar, such as improving agriculture. A pleased Thein Sein replied, "I will take this opportunity to reiterate that Myanmar and I will continue to ... move forward so that we will have -- we can build a new democratic state -- a new Myanmar."
Talk about a reversal of fortune. Only three years earlier, not only would this meeting have been impossible, but nearly every top leader in Myanmar had been barred from entering the United States and most other leading democracies. Sanctions hobbled the country's economy. Members of the U.S. Congress regularly castigated Myanmar as one of the most tyrannical societies on Earth. Former President George W. Bush in 2007 even canceled a planned summit with the regional body the Association of Southeast Asian Nations simply to avoid having to interact with Myanmar.
In the days before Thein Sein's visit, nearly every U.S. official who spoke publicly about the country painted it as a potential model of emerging democratization -- a bright spot in a world where democracy has regressed for the past seven years, according to the global monitoring group Freedom House. Since the United States began easing sanctions in 2012, American companies have started to flow into Myanmar -- perhaps the largest untapped emerging market the world. In April, Ford announced that it will open a car dealership in Myanmar, the first major automaker to do so, while General Electric, Caterpillar, and many other multinationals are looking to expand their businesses there. The U.S. view on Myanmar has indeed switched 180 degrees -- yet it remains dangerously black and white.
While the country has taken important steps toward democratization, its opening has also unleashed dangerous forces that have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar's Muslim minority, which make up about 4 percent of the country's 60 million people. As Reuters reported in mid-May, "In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Myanmar is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred." The attacks are destabilizing the country and creating the possibility of nationwide violence, upsetting Myanmar's fragile transition and creating instability in the middle of the most important region in the world for the United States. (Militants in Indonesia, angry at the attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, reportedly tried to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta.)
The attacks, which in 2012 killed at least 192 people but seemed confined to the western state of Rakhine, have since spread -- and the Myanmar press reports burnings, beatings, and evictions of Muslims throughout the country. In an April report, Human Rights Watch labeled the violence "ethnic cleansing" and "crimes against humanity," noting that state security forces participated in the attacks alongside mobs -- together burning mosques, driving Muslims from their homes, and preventing people from assisting the injured and dying.
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's leading moral authority, has said little about the attacks against Muslims. In a statement to Global Post in May, Aung San Suu Kyi's spokesman claimed that his boss has little interest in supporting the Rohingya's claims for rights and citizenship -- a shocking response by the Nobel laureate, renowned around the world as a champion of freedom and rights. "She believes, in Burma, there is no Rohingya ethnic group," the spokesman said -- in other words, that they do not deserve the protections Myanmar's constitution grants to other ethnic groups.