RANGOON — “It’s been quite a while,” might be the first thing US President Barack Obama and his Burmese counterpart Thein Sein say to each other when they meet next week.
How long? The last time a Burmese president visited the White House, Charles de Gaulle was president of France and England had just won the football World Cup. “The Sound of Music” was voted Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the average price of a new car in the United States was just over US$2,500. In Asia, China’s inaptly named “Cultural Revolution” was just underway, while Indonesia’s equally euphemistic “New Order” regime was asserting control over that vast archipelago.
Burma was four years into what would be five decades of military rule under then President Ne Win, who despite sending his country along the “Burmese Road to Socialism”—at the height of the Cold War, no less—received a warm welcome in Washington.
With American troops in Vietnam hitting the 250,000 mark that same year, US President Lyndon B. Johnson told his Burmese counterpart—a compatriot of then UN Secretary-General U Thant—that “this occasion has a special significance, for it is the first visit to the United States by a chief of state of Burma. We greet you today as the leader of a nation with a long and proud history and a rich cultural heritage. We are delighted that you can be here with us.”
No doubt the greetings will be as warm come next week when Thein Sein makes what will be only the second-ever state visit by a Burmese president to the United States, which is slowly coming around to addressing the Southeast Asian nation by the name its leadership prefers.
Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, said that “the United States government over time has begun limited use of the name ‘Myanmar’ as a diplomatic courtesy,” a reward for a Burma that “has undertaken a number of positive reforms, including releasing over 850 political prisoners; easing media restriction; permitting freedom of speech, assembly, and movement.”
In what has become a trademark move whenever Burma’s leaders have a high-profile international meeting, political prisoners were freed Friday, ahead of Thein Sein’s trip to the United States. Political prisoners are free with strings attached, however, and run the risk of being reincarcerated at any time. The US Campaign for Burma (USCB), a prominent lobby group that frequently testifies on Burma to Washington lawmakers, wants this matter addressed when the two leaders meet.
Citing the case of political prisoner Nay Myo Zin, who was sentenced on May 7 to serve the six remaining years of his original 10-year prison sentence after being freed in one of the several recent high-profile political prisoner amnesties, the USCB says the Obama administration has granted too many concessions to the Burmese “quasi-democratic” government. The group claims that “this encouragement policy is not working.”
Burma is two years into a civilian system of government in which the military, which took control under Ne Win, still retains what some feel is an overweening position in Burmese politics.
The country’s 2008 Constitution guarantees the army a veto-wielding 25 percent of seats in the legislature and will prevent long-feted opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, even if her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins Burma’s next national elections, scheduled for 2015.
Suu Kyi and government ministers have said the Constitution could be tinkered with, giving hope to Phyo Phyo Aung—a former political prisoner now working for the All Burma Federation of Student Unions—that the subject will be raised when the two leaders meet.
“Our country’s democratic future depends on this being redrawn,” she told The Irrawaddy, referring to the 2008 Constitution. “I hope that they discuss this next week.”
Burma’s opposition is keeping quiet about Thein Sein’s historic visit to Washington, however, stressing its importance for Burma’s international relations and reputation. Saying his party does not want to make suggestions about particular issues ahead of Thein Sein’s visit, NLD spokesman Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy that “this is an important moment for Burma as a country, for our international recognition.”
Burma’s reforms since 2011 have been met with increased business interest from American companies and, despite the military’s constitutionally enshrined role in politics, other changes such as the freeing of political prisoners and the holding of free and fair by-elections have been met with a liberalization of the sanctions regime put in place by the United States. The sanctions, which proscribed most American investment in Burma, were intended to nudge the former military junta ruling Burma toward reform.
Zaw Min Oo, a Burmese businessman and secretary-general of the Myanmar Computer Federation, hopes that the two leaders will discuss the remaining sanctions against Burma. “I believe that President Thein Sein will try to get 100 percent removal of the sanctions,” he told The Irrawaddy.
In April, US Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said the United States could waive import duties on thousands of goods from Burma, including agricultural products, handicrafts and textiles. It’s a move that, if implemented, could see the type of job-creating investment that leaders such as Suu Kyi have called for.
In recent months, American brands such as Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric, Google and Starbucks have either opened operations or sales in Burma, or expressed interest in doing so, hoping to tap an economy routinely described as one of the world’s last “untapped” markets. Burma’s population of 50-60 million has been largely cut off from the global economy in recent decades.
The slow trickle of Western investment into Burma is likely to be at the top of the agenda for Thein Sein, said Christian Lewis, Southeast Asia analyst with Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm. Lewis told The Irrawaddy that “the Thein Sein administration’s biggest frustration so far is that, despite the bullish talk of Southeast Asia’s last economic frontier and latest tiger cub, there isn’t actually such a large amount of investment yet, particularly in the case of US, European and Australian firms.”
Lewis said increased American development aid—focused on much-needed infrastructure in a country where electricity, clean water and good roads are lacking—is something the Burmese could look for in Washington. Otherwise Western investment in Burma—outside of natural resources—could be held up, with companies “content to wait three years until someone builds roads and power stations, and the perception of political volatility dies down,” according to Lewis.
Zaw Min Oo said that though he hopes the United States removes the last of the sanctions on Burma, the Burmese side needs to continue its business-related reforms to facilitate investment. “We need to establish faster procedures here. Administration and bureaucracy is very slow,” he said.
When Ne Win met Johnson in 1966, a note to the US president from then Secretary of State Dean Rusk cautioned that “drastic nationalization of the economy, under a program of ‘Burmese socialism,’ has resulted in serious mismanagement and economic disorder, and chronic problems of insurgency, concentrated in the ethnic minority areas, have continued.”
Much of that rings true five decades later, with increased fighting in recent weeks between the Burmese Army and militias in Shan State, homeland of Burma’s biggest ethnic minority, the Shan, as tensions over dam building and natural resources in the region intensify.
An upsurge in anti-Muslim sentiment has seen several bouts of sectarian violence in the west and center of the country, and though relatively quiet in recent months, a civil war has flared near the Burma-China border between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese troops, with more than 100,000 displaced as a result.
Despite the upsurge in civil conflict in Burma in recent months, the United States has suggested increased military engagement with the Burmese Army.
And while it is likely that Obama will stress the need for peace, some believe he will not press Thein Sein too much on the array of ethnic and religious conflicts that could, some believe, stymie Burma’s economic potential.
Burma’s strategic location between India and China means powerful countries are likely to seek its friendship—the United States included. China’s economic rise—it is likely to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy by 2030 or earlier, according to some estimates—and associated military expansion all pose a challenge for Washington.
China is Burma’s biggest investor, mostly focused on harnessing Burma’s lush natural resources such as gas, oil, hydropower, gems and timber. But many in Burma see Chinese investment as exploitative, and view money from Beijing as more interest-based than job-intensive.
Only last week, Chinese companies held a rare press conference in Rangoon to defend what is Beijing’s most prominent Burmese investment—a set of pipelines nearly 800 km in length that will move gas and oil from the Burmese coast to Yunnan in southern China, reducing Beijing’s dependence on shipping the fuel by sea to the south and east, where the US Navy remains dominant.
The United States sees a strategic opportunity in Burma, said Maung Zarni, an outspoken critic of the Thein Sein government who sees the growing rapprochement between the two governments as based partly on Washington’s hopes of containing a rising China.
“Obama will not be talking to Thein Sein about these things [ethnic conflict or attacks on Muslims] in any serious manner because the United States is desperate to hold the hands of the Burmese generals and ex-generals out of its undeclared designs against China,” Zarni, a visiting fellow with the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics, told The Irrawaddy.