Burmese Shrug at Obama Visit, as Beijing Shudders

By Saw Yan Naing 12 November 2012

RANGOON — When US President Barack Obama arrives in Burma one week from today, he will be making history as the first American leader ever to set foot in the country. But if you ask ordinary Burmese what they think of the visit, few betray much excitement.

“I’m just struggling to make ends meet, so it doesn’t matter much to me,” says Shwe Ni, a taxi driver in the former Burmese capital, when asked what he thought about Obama’s planned stopover here next Monday as part of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia.

Like many others in this city, which is fast becoming one of the region’s investment hotspots, Shwe Ni said he was aware of the imminent visit, but is just too busy to care. All the buzz about Burma rejoining the international community has yet to make much difference to him, he added.

Not everyone, however, is so completely jaded by the thought of yet another foreign visitor coming to the country to talk business or politics. On Sunday, a group of artists in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township painted a large graffiti-style portrait mural of Obama to welcome the newly re-elected president.

“We painted it to express our support for Obama’s visit,” said Akar Kyaw, one of the artists. Asked why he thought the visit was significant, he said: “We hear that the US will help Burma to improve its education.”

Evidently, however, not everyone seems to share his sentiments: overnight, vandals defaced the mural, covering it with black spray paint.

Still, said Akar Kyaw, it’s good that Burma is getting closer to a developed, democratic country like the US—far better, he said, than relying on China, which has never shown much interests in anything other than the country’s resources.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Burma is about to distance itself completely from its largest and most powerful neighbor, according to Thakin Chan Htun, a former Burmese ambassador to China who said that US moves in the region aimed to limit, but not eliminate, China’s growing influence.

“As a longtime ally of Burma, China will try to maintain its friendship with Burma even as it opens up to the West and ties between the US and Burma improve,” he said, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday.

But even if the Burmese response to a growing US role in their country remains rather lukewarm, there is still an undeniable chill in most people’s perceptions of China—something that Beijing is only now beginning to acknowledge, after decades of cultivating close ties with Burmese military rulers who until last year showed little interest in public opinion.

This has set off a frenzy of hand-wringing among Chinese intellectuals about how to counter Washington’s growing sway in Naypyidaw. In an article published by Asia Times Online, veteran Burma watcher Bertil Lintner wrote that several papers have appeared in Chinese academic journals recently suggesting ways that Beijing can improve its standing among ordinary Burmese, including a possible public relations campaign to counter China’s negative image.

There are also reports that Beijing is now telling Chinese investors operating in foreign countries to be more respectful of local customs and people, and to show some sense of social responsibility. Some companies appear to be getting the message: China National Petroleum Corporation, which is building a controversial oil pipeline across Burma, has started constructing schools in villages along the pipeline, according to a report by The Economist.

Meanwhile, China’s media is also taking a growing interest in what is happening beyond its border with its once moribund neighbor. Asked why, a journalist for The Global Times, a Beijing-based English-language daily, said, “I think it is mainly because of all the significant changes there [in Burma].”

Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, told The Economist that “alarm bells started ringing” for the Chinese over Burma when construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River was unexpectedly halted last year.

China’s mistake, he said, was to focus only on building relationships with government officials, without paying any attention to “domestic political nuances.”

If the US hopes to do any better in Burma, however, it will also have to go beyond high-profile, high-level meetings between senior leaders, and turns its focus squarely on issues that matter most to ordinary people.