Aung San Suu Kyi and Obama Burma Policy a Failure

The manufacturing of U.S. Olympic uniforms in China seems to have outraged every American except for Mitt Romney. 

On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats slammed the outsourcing as an insult to a U.S. textile industry weakened by recession. It made no sense for Romney to say something less than vitriolic — he wants the U.S. to “get tough” on China and needs to call attention to the unrecovered economy to win the election. But he only said the uniforms are "extraneous.” 

The China controversy has been something both Republicans and Democrats could spring on, but attention has now turned to Romney's own personal Olympics scandal. As president and CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney allowed torchbearer uniforms to be made in Burma, in issue again coming to light. While it was wrong for Romney to inadvertently support a military dictatorship, the GOP campaign could fight the negative press by emphasizing the positives of the Winter Olympics and criticizing the Obama’s recent decision to ease sanctions on Burma.

Burma is notorious for denying political freedom and violating human rights. In January 2011, a new government ended the military regime that took power in 1989, beginning much-needed political reforms. The leadership of mostly former generals released political prisoners, permitted trade unions and freedom of assembly, loosened media censorship, and allowed opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to become an official party; Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD leader freed from 15 years of house arrest in 2010, won a seat in parliament. But the military continues to abuse citizens, subjecting them to forced labor, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and indiscriminate attacks. Although political freedom has improved, Burma still suffers from human rights violations. 

So Romney not only outsourced outside of the U.S., but picked a country that violates our political ideals. Human rights advocates and trade groups protested the 10,000 uniforms labeled “Made in Burma (Myanmar),” eventually pressuring the International Olympic Committee to pledge never to support the Burmese regime. Romney’s oversight at the helm was an embarrassment that he hoped wouldn’t resurface during the election. (Fun fact: the organizers thought Burma and Myanmar were two separate countries. “The torch relay clothes were NOT made in Burma. They were manufactured in Myanmar," they responded). 

The Romney campaign should make two moves to turn the tables. First, it should emphasize that the Salt Lake City Olympics was a win for Romney overall. Back in 2002, the Olympic Games were poorly organized and economically weak. Romney swooped in and reformed budgets, revamped organization, raised funds, and settled the worries of corporate sponsors. The Olympics allowed Romney to demonstrate his turnaround artistry, leadership, and organization capabilities at the federal, state, and local levels.

Second, Romney could argue that now the Obama administration is undercutting reforms in the unstable country. Last week, Obama relaxed sanctions by authorizing the U.S. exportation of financial services and investment in Burma ostensibly to encourage further political reform. While Obama also gave the Treasury more power to punish people who undermine the political reforms, the overall policy is dicey. Most controversially, the eased sanctions allow for investment in the state-run oil and gas company notorious for its lack of transparency. Human Rights Watch argues that the move undercuts Suu Kyi, who has urged against investment with the oil company, and others who are promoting government accountability. It’s likely that the decision is a geopolitical strategy — the U.S. wants Burma to become less reliant on China and less influenced by U.S. competitors such as Australia, Canada, and the European Union, which have much looser sanctions. So it’s unclear whether Obama genuinely wants to reform Burma with the influence of American anti-corruption laws or wants to play catch-up. 

So the media’s focus on the Burmese outsourcing of Olympic uniforms may hurt Romney’s image slightly. But the Republican candidate can take advantage of the national spotlight on the Olympics and on Burma if his campaign reframes the debate.