Obama's Myanmar policy offers hope

On Nov 8, the White House confirmed that President Barack H Obama is visiting Myanmar as part of a three-nation trip to Southeast Asia from this Saturday until next Tuesday. The visit becomes the first ever by a sitting US president.

The trip will be Mr Obama's first international trip since his re-election on Nov 6 for a second term in office. The president will be joined by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who visited the country last year.

This could be Mrs Clinton's final visit to Myanmar as Secretary of State if she decides to leave the State Department. On Jan 26, she told members of the State Department that she would quit her job if Mr Obama won his re-election bid.

During his stay, Mr Obama is scheduled to meet President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition and chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Mr Obama will also meet representatives of civil society organisations.

The easing of sanctions, the appointment of Ambassador Derek J Mitchell, and the visit of Mr Obama are a testament to America's commitment toward Myanmar and its people.

The pace of US-Myanmar bilateral relations' improvement has surprised many observers and analysts alike. While many welcome the Mr Obama's visit, there are others who criticise the timing of such high-level visit.

There are valid points to both arguments. On a positive note, the visit shows the US's continued support for human rights and democratic reforms. The visit could also boost the initiatives of President Thein Sein in the midst of some military hardliners who are critical of the democratic reform process.

The visit could also provide incentives for both Rakhine state and central governments to help end the conflict in Rakhine. Mr Obama could use the visit to urge both the government and the opposition to work concertedly for a solution. The visit could also be a morale boost for democracy advocates and other civil society groups to strengthen their activities.

On the other hand, armed conflict is unabated in Kachin state and there are thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons. The number varies from source to source, but there are still political prisoners across the country. As of Oct 31, 2012, there were 283 political prisoners according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Some are concerned that Mr Obama's visit will overshadow the ongoing conflicts and that the US leverage to influence the Myanmar government for further democratic reforms might be weakened.

While the Obama administration should be given credit for pursuing the dual-track policy that opened the door for diplomacy, one must also acknowledge the contribution of the Republican administration under President George W Bush. Among others, the Bush administration successfully placed Myanmar in the formal agenda of the United Nations Security Council on Sept 15, 2006.

Recent political developments have shown that Myanmar has embarked on a new phase of politics. However, one should not be overoptimistic about its future prospects. Challenges and uncertainties remain _ uncertainties over free and fair elections and issues pertaining to autonomy.

After its independence from the British on Jan 4, 1948, Myanmar had a parliamentary democracy until a military coup in 1962. The central government was fragile due to insurgency problems. The ethnic minority groups demanded secession from the Union when the Panglong agreement on autonomy was not upheld.

Although ethnic minorities have dropped their original demand for secession, the demand for autonomy remains intact. The present government of the Union Solidarity and Development Party has reached ceasefire agreements with the majority of the armed groups, but there is no guarantee of an amicable political settlement.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the present quasi-civilian government will amend the 2008 constitution to remove the inherent role of the military in politics. There is uncertainty whether the 2015 election will be free and fair. There is also no guarantee that the constitution that guarantees 25% of parliament seats to the military will be amended.

Under such circumstances, it is uncertain whether the judiciary branch can function independently. There is also uncertainty if the former and present military leaders would allow an impartial inquiry into human rights abuses and any possible criminal acts of the past military regime.

Despite the lingering uncertainties, there is room for national reconciliation if the central government led by ethnic Myanmar and ethnic minorities cooperate. In order for mutual trust to develop, minority problems need to be resolved. President Obama should emphasise the urgency for such a solution. The US must understand that minority problems outweigh differences between the NLD and the military.

There is every reason to be optimistic about the political changes in Myanmar. However, given the nature of Myanmar's historical problems, there are also reasons to be critical about long-term solutions.


Nehginpao Kipgen is general-secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Myanmar.

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Writer: Nehginpao Kipgen