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Myanmar’s White House bow: well done, but not mission accomplished

Thein Sein on Monday became the first Burmese president to visit the US since 1968. His meeting with President Obama is part of an opening of Myanmar to US business, but there’s much more to do, a human-rights activist says.

President Obama’s meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein on Monday – the first visit to theUS by a Burmese ruler since 1968 – caps a flurry of recent activity between the two nations since Myanmar began rolling back elements of its authoritarian regime in its “Myanmar Spring.”

A recent visit to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) by America’s top trade official included discussions about the possibility of duty-free status for some of Myanmar’s products. That followed an April announcement by Ford Motor Company that it would be jumping into the Burmese auto market, and a March visit to Myanmar by Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

But human rights officials caution that the visit should not be prematurely hailed as a “mission accomplished moment” for the still-troubled country.

“We welcome high-level engagement with the government of Myanmar, but there are some enormous challenges that lie ahead,” says Frank Januzzi, head of the Washington office ofAmnesty International. “There’s a temptation for this to be viewed as a celebratory moment, but this is not a mission accomplished moment for Myanmar policy.”

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The former military dictatorship has some important waymarks on its horizon, including releasing political prisoners from prisons across the country.

While President Thein has stressed the Myanmar government’s commitment to releasing all political prisoners, “we’d like that process to expedited,” says Mr. Januzzi, who attended a private dinner with Thein on Sunday evening. 

Human-rights groups are also concerned about the growing unrest between Buddhists and Muslim minorities, coupled with state security forces who could compound violence.

“You have security forces who are not very well trained, who are responsible themselves for human rights violations, so restoring peace and order requires a heightened security force presence while not perpetrating additional abuses – that’s a challenge,” Januzzi says

What’s more, while the state has made cease-fire agreements with most of the country’s ethnic minority groups, “those have not been translated into lasting peace agreements,” he says.

Although the political landscape of Myanmar remains deeply unsettled, big businesses are rushing into the country. This presents opportunities as well as great risks, human rights groups caution.

“Burma is now officially open for business. Sanctions have been suspended or lifted, and investors are scoping out the country, looking for opportunities,” but Myanmar remains a country “absent rule of law, with weak judicial institutions,” Januzzi says.

As business rushes in, “this is a country with land grabs going on, that is ripe for abuse,” he adds. “You’ve got to go in with your eyes wide open.”