Obama stakes his claim

Symbolism of US president’s visit to Myanmar and the message it sends to China can’t be overlooked, even if substance is thin.

This week’s whirlwind visit of US President Barack Obama to Myanmar has caused goosebumps regionally and underscored the significance of the inseparable duo of Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi to the country’s future.

Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar. Richard Nixon, then vice-president, paid a visit in 1957 to Burma as it was called then.

The president’s visit is certain to be seen as a major catalyst for the continuation of reforms. However, it also thrusts Myanmar firmly into the “collision zone” of major powers: the US and China.

Aung San Suu Kyi meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Sept 19.

Only two years ago, China regarded Myanmar as a virtual economic colony, with India its only perceived major rival. The United States was not in the picture at all.

All that changed when the military junta gave way to a quasi-civilian elected government that has been pursuing reforms with a zeal that has shocked the world. At the same time, the Obama administration has made it clear that the United States intends to play a much larger role in Asia, both militarily and economically. Left unsaid is Washington’s desire to keep a lid on Beijing’s regional ambitions.

Critics are questioning whether Obama’s “eye-opening trip” will be of any substance as he is meeting only leading figures, President Thein Sein and Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He will not be meeting any leaders from the many ethnic groups that have been in conflict with the central government. In some cases, truces agreed by the groups with the Thein Sein government have been ineffective and people continue to be killed and displaced.

While Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has reaffirmed that the unrest between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in western Rakhine state would feature in the talks between the two presidents, the no-business agenda during Obama’s visit has left local people wondering what benefits a US shadow in their country might bring.

“The public knows very little about his visit. After all, it’s less than a half-day stop. Of course, people like Obama for his democratic face. Animosity toward the American leader and the US in general is less clear than the sentiment Myanmar has grudgingly had with China,” said Maung Shwe, an independent scholar from Myanmar.

“Yet, there is no drama in the city of Yangon, no excitement, no hoo-hah like Bangkok has (for Obama’s presence).”

Apart from meeting Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, the US president is scheduled to meet Min Ko Naign and Ko Ko Kyi, leaders of the 88 Generation Group of former student activists.

Klaus W. Larres, distinguished professor of history and international affairs at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), said Obama’s visit would pave way for the gradual decrease and eventual disappearance of sanctions.

“Obviously this would require some further robust progress by the leadership in Myanmar too,” he said. “As you know, some experts are criticising Obama’s trip as premature. It should only have come as a reward after further irreversible reforms, it is often claimed.”

For the president to go to Myanmar that early in the reform process, he said, was a gamble but not one without a chance of success. “He may even announce the end of most major sanctions during his visit in order to help the reform progress along,” said the American scholar.

For Roland Watson, from Dictator Watch, the problem is the symbolic element of the trip. “He is not just on a fact-checking mission. To the world, the visit will be viewed as an affirmation of the regime, and not only its economic reforms.”

Even if Obama speaks out against the human rights abuses in Burma — which should include not only the persecution of the Rohingya and the civil war against the Kachin, but also the 1988 atrocities — ideally, Obama still should meet representatives from the ethnic alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council, as well as Rohingya leaders, noted Mr Watson.

Michael Montesano, visiting research fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, differed but shared some concern about whether the new American ambassador Derek Mitchell, who knows the country quite well, can impress on Washington a clear understanding of developments in Myanmar and local sensitivities.

There is also an element of awkwardness in attempts to link Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar president, as if her presence is required to validate his role and assure some western states that it’s safe to deal with Myanmar now.

As Mr Montesano put it: “A visiting foreign head of state must treat Thein Sein like the head of state.

“One can only hope that Washington and its representatives in Yangon have come to understand Myanmar affairs in a more sophisticated way than some years ago and that they do not remain the slaves of Aung San Suu Kyi’s analysis of the situation.

“For President Obama to meet President Thein Sein only to mouth Aung San Suu Kyi’s line would be very unfortunate,” added the long-time American resident in the region.

Striking a balance for accelerated engagement with Myanmar and showing itself as a champion of democracy will be no easy task for Obama who has limited experience on Myanmar issues, all observers agreed.

About the author

Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter