Time to Embrace the West

By Aung Zaw 29 December 2012

Will Barack Obama’s historic visit herald a new chapter in the US-Myanmar relationship? Without doubt, the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar was the undisputed highlight of a raft of international dignitaries to arrive since President U Thein Sein initiated political reforms last year.

Many see Myanmar as continuing to live in the 20th century, still unable to emerge from China’s shadow. Mr Obama’s arrival in the once-isolated country signals that the time has arrived to reshape and redefine foreign policy as we engage more with the West.

Before he touched down in Yangon’s once-sleepy international airport, many critics and campaign groups argued that Mr Obama’s visit was too soon, while others thought his trip was to simply a bid to offset China’s influence.

Other analysts thought that the purpose of his trip was to embolden the Myanmar population and encourage further reform. For me, there is no black and white answer to these assessments and they all play a part.

Certainly, the visit fits into the US administration’s policy of maintaining a pivot towards the Asia-Pacific. Myanmar lies between China and India, with direct access to the strategically important Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Moreover, a country bordering China, and generally known to be in Beijing’s pocket, which suddenly forges closer ties with Washington is a rare foreign policy coup for the White House.

Myanmar’s move from authoritarian rule to democracy has therefore been welcomed in the US, even if it still has far to go, and was also seen as a political achievement for Mr Obama prior to his re-election in November. After all, Myanmar suddenly became a darling of the West.

The rise of anti-China sentiment and ongoing protests against Chinese-funded megaprojects are ringing alarm bells in Beijing and Naypyitaw. Moreover, I doubt China is happy to see its neighbor suddenly becoming more open and courting the West.

Washington recently announced that it will allow Myanmar to be an observer at next year’s annual Cobra Gold military exercise. Nevertheless, enhanced cooperation between the US and Myanmar armed forces will draw remonstrations from campaign groups at home and abroad.

Indeed, these concerns are not without precedent. From the 1950s to 1980s, Myanmar sent military officers to receive training in the US, yet these same individuals helped engineer Gen Ne Win’s 1962 coup, install half-a-decade of brutal military dictatorship and run one of the most feared internal spy agencies in Asia.

Did the US president’s visit embolden the people of Myanmar? His administration planned the trip carefully and selected the perfect venue to deliver his historic speech. Mr Obama did not go to Naypyitaw—many Myanmar people did not want him to recognize what is still seen as the generals’ capital—and chose to speak at long-derelict Yangon University, a hotbed for anti-regime activism for generations.

Knowing his enormous leverage, Mr Obama broached almost every contentious subject in Myanmar—sectarian violence, racism, discrimination, national reconciliation, long-running insurgencies and cementing peace.

He was extremely well received despite stirring some controversy among both Bamar and ethnic Rakhine politicians by championing the cause of Rohingya Muslims.

However, his meeting with U Thein Sein went well although several government sources subsequently admitted that some ministers were unhappy with his speech. This is not surprising as Mr Obama obviously did not come to offer blanket praise of the government. The military remains in absolute control, and former dictators—who siphoned state funds and committed countless crimes including heinous human rights violations—continue to enjoy impunity.

His visit to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence was significant, as the 44th US president’s kiss and general over-affection did not invoke any ill-feeling amongst the traditionally conservative Myanmar people. In fact, most rather welcomed his enthusiasm. I wonder what would happen if the new Chinese premier behaved similarly towards the Nobel laureate? Perhaps there would be a public outcry.

But the National League for Democracy chairwoman, who initially opposed Mr Obama’s visit, warned, “We have to be very careful that we›re not lured by a mirage of success.” She is correct. Cautious optimism remains the correct position as there remains a long way to go.

Nevertheless, having Air Force One land in Yangon demonstrates that Myanmar is no longer a pariah state.

“When I took office as president,” said Mr Obama. “I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your first … So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”

Myanmar has been waiting a long time for such an offer and the chance to step out of China’s shadow. We must not miss this opportunity.

This story first appeared in the December 2012 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.