How times have changed. President Obama arrived in Burma today to become the first sitting US head of state to visit the country, a gesture given added significance in that it comes less than a fortnight after his reelection to office. The president’s Extended Hand Tour 2012 will also take in Thailand and Cambodia as Washington makes bold strides in its ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific and attempts to wrestle the region from China’s clutches.
The US will take credit for the reforms under way in Burma, and some of this is deserved – from the mid-1990s onwards they have been the most vocal critic of the various regimes that ruled Burma, and despite its major shortcomings, the reach of Washington’s sanctions far surpassed that of the EU’s. After President Thein Sein’s ascendance to top office in early 2011, the cautious and skeptical approach to Burma from the US was welcomed.
But where baby steps were once the order of the day, Washington has now taken a leap. Obama is reportedly due to strike a balance between praise and pressure, something that the realpolitik faction of his administration will celebrate, but others are less enthused: it was only a year ago that US officials said military relations could only develop if the Burmese army was held accountable for its actions, yet despite it remaining the one institution not touched by the reform process, the US has already extended a hand in its direction.
The continued incarceration of political prisoners – whose release was another criteria for developing relations set by the US – should similarly provoke concern about how far exactly Naypyidaw is willing to push the transition to democracy, and whether the US will continue to court Thein Sein if they remain in prison. Obama had said in his 2009 Nobel acceptance speech that “there must be consequences” for the actions of the Burmese regime. The audience at his speech today at Rangoon University would do well to clarify this point.
Obama comes only a week after a top Burmese official brazenly acknowledged that his country may never become a functioning democracy. Deputy defense minister Aung Thaw told Reuters that the military has no plans to lessen its clout in parliament (currently a quarter of seats are occupied by military officials who were appointed by the president, not elected by Burmese). “The Defense Services are pro-actively participating in the process [of democratic transition],” he said, without irony.
With that, Burma’s transition could mirror aspects of Cambodia’s, the next stop on Obama’s tour. Despite Hun Sen remaining firmly in his autocratic seat, with his military still a powerful tool for oppression against the opposition, the US long ago resumed bilateral relations and softened its vocal criticism. Cambodia should provide a telling example of how low the bar needs to be set in Burma.
Obama’s visit may then carry one of two results. His administration will hope that the visit of a US president amid strengthening ties with the government in Burma will propel reforms. Already it has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume prison visits – a promising development that has struggled to feature on the radar amid the Obama hype – and there are reports that political prisoners were among the additional 66 released this morning. The rest remain political bargaining chips.
These small steps, one hopes, will continue apace. He could also put substantial pressure on Thein Sein to end attacks on ethnic groups and make a real stab at peace in the restive Arakan state, but the proof will be in the results. “Obama’s success in securing tangible commitments on human rights, not his mere presence in the country, is crucial for promoting genuine and lasting reform,” says Brad Adams from Human Rights Watch
But evidence from elsewhere in the world is that Washington’s criteria for strengthening relations is just too weak. “The US is more worried about China and North Korea than democracy and human rights in Burma,” long-time Burma journalist Bertil Lintner said last year. “Those issues are just for public consumption, and to make [their approaches to the government] more acceptable to Congress.” The risk with Burma is that oppression of the political opposition, which continues despite the country’s supposed new dawn, will become further institutionalised as the government receives stronger endorsement from the west. Where once power was very raw in Burma, it now hides behind a veneer of legitimacy – the long-term ramifications of this should be cause for concern for Obama.