“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss,” sang the gravelly-voiced Louis Armstrong in the immortal movie “Casablanca.” That may be so in most cases, but when the kisser is newly re-elected US President Barack Obama and the recipient is Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, something must give in geopolitics.
Hence, to the neoconservatives who predicted that Obama’s pivot to East Asia wouldn’t survive November and that it would be unceremoniously eclipsed by bloody turmoil in the Middle East, eat your hearts out.
The pivot to East Asia, or the rebalancing, or whatever you call it, has been sealed with a kiss.
The Burmese people, not usually treated to public displays of affection, took a heartbeat to recover from consternation—then smiled their acceptance of the body language of American politics.
The wits in the Western press had a field day piling on the physical awkwardness of the kiss, with him tall and not at all shy and her so frail and flustered. No tentative peck, it was a big one on the cheek. Caught live on TV, its geopolitical imagery was not lost on the world.
Obama had learned a thing or two since he made his first presidential trip to East Asia three years ago. That time he bowed too often and too deeply to almost everyone. His detractors mocked him for kowtowing, and thus advertising American decline.
This time he charmed the ladies, notably Burma’s opposition leader and Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. And this time, the critics couldn’t pillory him for betraying American weakness.
At the University of Rangoon, once a seedbed of student activism and social unrest, he told a packed audience what Suu Kyi should be saying loud and often: “There’s no excuse for violence against innocent people. … The Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do and I do. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country’s future, it’s necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence.”
This is not to say that she will never speak up. Perhaps she is carefully choosing the right time to speak the harsh truth to her own people. Obama himself had to wait for the right time before he could speak without ambiguity on gay marriage.
And there are many things he could not do before his re-election that he should be able to do now—like the nuclear disarmament initiatives he promised at the start of his first term and shutting down the American Bastille at Guantanamo.
Both Obama and Suu Kyi are Nobel laureates, but they are also smart politicians. They’re convinced the only smart politics is realpolitik. They are smart enough to see that reforms in Burma are not yet locked in, so the ruling government must be emboldened to do more. That’s why Obama did not go to Naypyidaw, the capital—that would have been a premature full endorsement.
But there’s basis for hope that by the time Burma hosts the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits of 2014, it will be a democracy comparable to that of Indonesia or even the United States. Which is not to say that it will be a fully mature democracy.
Indonesia’s democracy is blighted by laws on heresy, by the persecution of the Ahmadis and the Shias. As for American democracy, Obama spoke of it with humility when he made a pitch for human rights during the Asean-US Summit. He frankly admitted to flaws in the US system that were laid bare by the recent election campaign.
If it is done without the airs of a moral superior, but with the outreach of another struggling democracy, Obama’s pivot to East Asia becomes easier to welcome. Like a sudden but chaste kiss.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speech writer for the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992. This article first appeared in The Jakarta Globe. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessary reflect those of The Irrawaddy.