President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton began a trip through Asia today, starting in Thailand. From Thailand, they will visit Burma, or Myanmar as its former military leaders renamed it; after only six hours in Burma Obama and Clinton will head to Cambodia. President Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit Burma; Secretary Clinton visited with Burma’s president, Thein Sein in December last year.
In just over a year, Burma has shifted from a closed military dictatorship with a terrible human rights record, to a country that has made tentative steps towards reforming the government. Democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in 2010 and won a seat in parliament this year and with her party, won a majority of the contested seats. However, one-quarter of the seats in the new parliament are reserved for the military. It remains to be seen how much influence the military will retain in the new political system.
Adding to the mystery that seems to be a constant in Burma is the fact that the reforms, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest last year, were sudden and unexpected. The military is the most powerful group in Burma and ruled the country with an iron fist up until 2010. President Thein Sein has been a long-time party apparatchik and was not viewed as a potential reformer. How and why he came to power remain unanswered questions as do questions regarding the role of the military in the current government. While many political prisoners were released, hundreds more remain incarcerated; a majority of the population lives in deep poverty, and the military is still engaged in fighting with insurgent groups.
While it may seem to be obvious that Obama should visit Burma, there are many potential pitfalls to such a visit. For one thing, while Sein has announced a number of reforms, many of those have yet to be implemented. Human rights groups have documented serious human rights violations including several hundred political prisoners. The worry is that President Obama has not secured any guarantees of releases of political prisoners and that visiting without getting those guarantees could jeopardize any potential release of prisoners. The BBC reports that it is not known if Obama and Clinton have a list of prisoners to be released, however, if no political prisoners are released, Obama will leave himself open to charges that he moved too quickly with this visit and has jeopardized any future reforms. Obama has been very careful to make it clear that he is not endorsing the government, so much as he is supportive of its reforms. “This is not an endorsement of the government…This is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”
Whether Americans view it as interesting or as just another world tour by the president, the visit of a sitting U.S. president to a country beginning the reform process is viewed as an important indicator of support for the new government. President Obama’s presence in Burma, even though it is only for six hours, tells Burma, its government, and the rest of the world that the U.S. supports that government. This is what worries activists. By visiting so early in the reform process, there is a possibility that the Burmese government could decide that they have done enough and stop short of full reform or even return to previous, repressive policies. Obama’s visit will be scrutinized to determine whether he pays more attention to Sein or Suu Kyi. It may seem trivial, but given that Suu Kyi won a Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest for 15 years for her resistance to the military regime, Obama’s perceived support for her is vital to the success of any political transition in Burma.
Support for the reforms in Burma is also vital for U.S. interests in Asia. China has long claimed dominance in that hemisphere; however, Burma has not had an easy relationship with China and renewing or reviving its relationship with the United States provides Burma with an additional layer of protection against any potential economic or political pressure from China. Some indications that Burma does indeed want to cultivate a long-term relationship with the United States include the fact that President Thein Sein will meet President Obama in Rangoon, the traditional capital, instead of in the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw; and the government agreed to have Obama deliver a speech from the old University of Rangoon. The university has been closed by the government since 1988 after anti-government protests by students.
In response to questions and criticisms, The White House has termed the trip to Asia as a “pivot towards Asia” and away from the focus on the Middle East. However, with the current hostilities between Israel and Gaza, the continuing civil war in Syria, and the peripheral involvement of Turkey as it responds to Syrian rockets, President Obama may not be able to focus on Asia as much as he would like. Hopefully, the reforms in Burma are not only permanent, but an indication of more to follow. Democratic activists like Suu Kyi have given their lives and their freedom in their fight for freedom in their country.