Guest Column

President Obama is Coming to Burma

By Min Zin 10 November 2012

I don’t think there are any reliable opinion polls, but judging by anecdotal evidence, most Burmese are pretty happy to hear that President Obama has been re-elected. I spoke with a number of people who attended the U.S. embassy’s election night party in Rangoon, and all of them were optimistic that the extension of his term in office will boost U.S.-Burmese relations across the board, in areas ranging from economics to security. They’re particularly excited by the news that he’s planning to visit Burma later this month as part of the planned Southeast Asia tour that has just been confirmed by the White House. (The tour will also include stops in Thailand and Cambodia.) This will be the first presidential visit to Burma in more than half a century.

For what it’s worth, I share my compatriots’ joy. I think Obama has a profound understanding of the difference between living in an authoritarian country and a democratic society. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday night, he said, “We can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”

This appreciation of freedom and democracy is exactly right. People living in the free world often take for granted the rights that they enjoy. I always accept invitations from U.S. high schools to talk with the students about Burma and my personal experience, because I want to convey the same point that the president made on Tuesday night.

When I was involved in the democracy movement in Burma in the late 1980s, I was only a 15-year-old high school student. Producing or circulating pro-democracy pamphlets were considered criminal acts that could land you at least three years in prison. I remember that when almost a dozen student activists from our high school student union network were arrested in 1994 for distributing democracy literature, many of them were severely tortured in interrogation centers and later given three- to seven-year prison sentences for their activities. After sharing these stories with high school students in the United States, I always remind them that there are infinite differences between a country under tyranny—where an uncensored pamphlet can land you a lengthy prison sentence—and the free world, where you have the freedom to speak the truth and say that “two plus two make four,” as Orwell beautifully wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Two years ago Burma was still a country under tyranny. People risked their lives just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, for the chance to cast their ballots freely, and to see their choices honored. Thousands were killed and imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression in popular uprisings in 1988 and 2007, and in 1990, results of a parliamentary election which saw a large win of National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi were denied by the military. Much to the surprise of observers, however, that picture began to change in early 2011, when the liberalization process began. Hundreds of political prisoners were freed, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to enter mainstream politics, ceasefire deals with many ethnic rebel groups were either reached or renewed, media censorship was abolished, many exiles were allowed to return, and so forth. This is what President Obama called “flickers of progress.”

President Obama will be meeting his Burmese counterpart, Thein Sein, and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi. His talking points will very likely touch upon the further release of remaining political prisoners, ending the civil war against ethnic Kachin rebel groups in northern Burma, and solutions to the communal violence in Western Burma that The Economist recently described as “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim Rohingya minority. As a symbolic gesture, the president is probably also going to avoid visiting Naypyidaw, the country’s newly-relocated administrative capital widely viewed as military home turf, to which the United States and many Western embassies have refused to move their offices. Obama will likely speak with civil society groups and vow to support reforms in Burma’s education and health systems. According to a Washington lobbyist I spoke with, one of the locations where the White House is considering holding such meetings is the once-prestigious Rangoon University, which was closed down by the previous junta because the military viewed it as hotbed of student democracy movements. These substantive issues and symbolic gestures from the president are all important—and necessary.

However, I think there are two areas which deserve more attention from President Obama during his trip to Burma. First of all, according to Burma’s 2008 Constitution, President Thein Sein is not the commander-in-chief of the military; that role is held by Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Given the indisputable fact that the military is the most important force in determining Burma’s future, President Obama, acting in his role as the commander-in-chief of the United States, should make a gesture that expresses a sense of recognition and obligation to his counterpart. By this I mean that he should send a message to General Min Aung Hlaing explaining specific incentives that the United States can offer if the Burmese military continues to accept the ongoing political reforms. (The message can be delivered to the general by a senior member of the White House national security team.)

Second, the President should be sensitive on the issue of China, Burma’s giant neighbor and rapidly rising great power. There is no question that Chinese officials view Obama’s trip to Burma as an intrusion into their own backyard. If I can be allowed to recycle an old metaphor of East Asian international relations, the Chinese are inclined to see a pro-U.S. Burma as a dagger pointed at the heart of the dragon. As an astute Burmese journalist writes, China will not sit idly by and let Burma go without a fight. More importantly, Burma can’t afford to get stuck in any regional geopolitical rivalries, since the country urgently needs to move forward with reviving its economy and building state capacity. The president must reassure China by stressing what his ambassador to Burma, Derek Mitchell, recently said: “There is no intent of the United States in its relationship with Burma to have any negative influence on China-Burma relations.” This will be a hard sell, of course. The Chinese are going to be skeptical. But the president has to give it a try.

I think historians will judge the success of President Obama’s Burma visit by measuring his impact on these two areas. These are the most fundamental issues that have long-lasting effects on Burma’s stability and prosperity.

Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.