Six Hours of Strategic Charm: What Obama Achieved In Burma
By Aubrey BelfordNovember 20, 2012
No modern leader appears to put more faith in the power of speechifying than Barack Obama.
The US President is prone to periodic charm rampages, and his visit to Myanmar on Monday — the first by a US president — will go down as one of the more notable ones. Obama visited as part of a three-day tour that also took him to staunch US ally Thailand and to the much less reliable Cambodia. In his six heavily-feted hours in Myanmar, he met President Thein Sein and, separately, the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and he delivered a speech at the University of Yangon.
No one knew quite what to expect of Obama’s visit, which follows his re-election and comes amid the country’s greatly hyped political transformation. His administration was at pains, before he arrived, to emphasise that his visit was to encourage an ongoing process, rather than to give Myanmar, the country also known as Burma (Obama used both names for the country) a seal of approval as a fully finished democracy. Regardless, he faced objections even before he arrived that he was prematurely rewarding the country’s leaders.
There’s plenty unfinished in Myanmar. The government is still a semi-military hybrid, where uniformed soldiers control 25 per cent of the parliament, outnumbering the members of the opposition National League for Democracy elected in by-elections in April. The country remains divided by bloody ethnic conflicts, as it has been for the past six decades. Many political prisoners have been freed, but hundreds are still locked up. In the north, a civil war with Kachin rebels has displaced tens of thousands of people, and international aid has mostly been blocked. In the west, violence between local Rakhines and Rohingya Muslims has been accompanied by ugly Buddhist chauvinism and outright racism, some of it indulged in by the country’s erstwhile democracy fighters.
It’s a minefield — which Myanmar’s military, coincidentally, knows plenty about, since it continues to lay them. It also has so many child soldiers in its ranks that it makes Joseph Kony look like an amateur (although the country has agreed to phase this out).
But then, of course, there’s China to think about. Myanmar’s recent opening has provided an opportunity to pry the country from falling even further into Beijing’s orbit. The whole south-southeast Asia jaunt is a sign that Obama is strongly focused on re-emphasising America’s role in the Asia-Pacific region.
In his speech, Obama leant heavily on an approach that has caused him plenty of pain in his domestic dealings with Republicans: the idea that common cause can be found with old foes if both sides are ready to sit down and talk.
“When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear,” he told the crowd. “I said, in my inauguration address, ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’ And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip.”
At one stage, Obama stated that the same kind of rapprochement Myanmar was experiencing could come the way of North Korea, if it were to give up its nuclear weapons.
There were moments where Obama veered close — but not too close — to embarrassing his hosts. Comparing Myanmar’s ethnic tension and discrimination with his own story as a black man in America, he called for tolerance and lasting peace in the country’s many conflicts, both dormant and active. At one stage he even appeared to obliquely call for the stateless Rohingya to be granted Burmese citizenship. It’s a question that Suu Kyi has continually dodged out of apparent fear of losing her standing in the country’s Bamar ethnic majority, a position that in turn has seriously eroded her saint-like international standing.
Whether America’s actions in Myanmar line up with the rhetoric is also a big question. On the same day as Obama’s speech, the US re-opened its aid agency, USAID, along with USD170 million in assistance, conditional on continued reform. The United States has in the past year dropped many of its sanctions, and Myanmar’s abuse-stained military is widely expected to be allowed to send observers to the annual Cobra Gold war games in Thailand early next year.
But if history is any guide, the United States does not need its friends to be perfect. After visiting Myanmar, Obama headed straight to Cambodia, another country to enjoy its first visit by a US head of state. Cambodia still lives under the deeply authoritarian government of Hun Sen, but the country has proven palatable to the West by being friendly enough to foreign investment and aid.
Cambodia, too, has shown signs of drifting towards China, most recently running interference for Beijing in its disputes with other southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.
But maybe that’s just another thing that the spectacle of a big US visit can fix.