What Message Will Obama Bring?

By Aung Zaw 14 November 2012

Burmese have many questions they’d like ask to US President Barack Obama when he makes his historic visit to their country next week, but not all of the questions they’re asking each other right now are entirely serious.

“Shall we address him as Obama or Omyanmar?” asked one social activist on Facebook recently, reviving the perennial debate about the proper name of their long-divided country.

But bad puns aside, Obama’s visit will not be an occasion for much levity. It comes at a time when war rages on in northern Burma’s Kachin State, and when the flames of communal unrest continue to be fanned in religiously divided Arakan.

Some wonder why Obama, fresh from his re-election, would even want to visit a country still so far from being at peace with itself. Even US diplomats concede that the trip will not be without some controversy. But as one senior US official put it, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Not everyone agrees. Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who in 2008 met then President George W. Bush in Bangkok along with several other prominent Burmese activists, thinks it is still far too soon for such a highly significant visit.

“What can [Obama] get in return?” he asked, noting that US demands for the release of political prisoners and an end to arbitrary arrest and human rights abuses continue to go unmet. He said he worries that the visit will only serve to legitimize a government that has yet to live up to many of its promises.

Perhaps, however, the US administration hopes that Obama’s visit will have the same effect as that of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last December. A month or so after her landmark trip, hundreds of political prisoners, including some of Burma’s most prominent dissidents, were released. Even now, however, many more remain behind bars.

Obama’s visit—the first ever by a US president—is not expected to last more than half a day, but it has Rangoon, his only stop in the country, abuzz with anticipation. Security is tight, and the posh Chatrium Hotel has been cleared of guests and is now reportedly crawling with Secret Service agents.

While this is hardly likely to become the “new normal” for Burma, a country that is finally getting its 15 minutes of fame after nearly 50 years of neglect, the government must be relishing this moment as a sign that it is no longer the pariah regime it once was. According to Na Zin Latt, an economic adviser to the government, Obama’s visit is the strongest indicator yet that Burma is fast becoming a “normal country.”

For those with some misgivings about Obama’s visit, however, it comes as some relief that he is at least confining himself to the former capital, where he will meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. A trip to Naypyidaw, they say, would send entirely the wrong message.

According to a report by Foreign Policy, even Suu Kyi was initially opposed to the proposed visit, until it was agreed that Obama would not travel to the new capital, which is regarded as a stronghold of the military and the former junta that ruled Burma until it handed power over to Thein Sein last year.

Ko Ko Gyi, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group who is now visiting Europe, said that he expected some good to come from Obama’s visit, as long as it isn’t seen as an endorsement of the current government, which consists mostly of ex-generals from the former regime. First and foremost, he said, the US president must extract promises from his Burmese counterpart that the military won’t use its might to resolve political and ethnic conflicts.

In another nod to dissidents, many of whom have turned their energies to social welfare issues, the White House has said in a statement that the president will meet with civil-society groups during his visit. There have even been suggestions that the meeting will take place at Rangoon University, the epicenter of the 1988  student-led uprising against military. The campus remains shut even now, and Obama’s presence there would certainly do much to reawaken memories of the tragic past.

But what of ethnic leaders, who feel that Burma hasn’t changed that much since last year’s transition to quasi-civilian government? Some have called Obama’s trip premature, but at least one, Kachin leader Dr Tu Ja, has said that the president’s decision to visit should be welcomed, but only if he doesn’t narrowly focus on US interests and takes Burma’s domestic political issues into consideration.

One major concern is that the US embrace of Burma, after decades of isolating the country, is motivated primarily by a desire to contain China, rather than to promote democracy and human rights—something that has been argued by Bertil Lintner, a journalist and author of several books on Burma.

The fact that the US has agreed to give the Burmese army observer status at the next Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand is seen by some as a sign that Washington may be getting ahead of itself in its efforts to draw Burma into its sphere of influence, and away from Beijing’s orbit.

But it’s not only Burmese activists and ethnic leaders who feel there is some danger in this scenario.

“The US should remain balanced in its policies, and reassure China that the US understands, and agrees, that Myanmar must retain good relations with China. I hope Obama says that publicly and privately when he is there,” said Prof David Steinberg, an expert on Burma at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Steinberg also believes, however, that Obama’s visit is as much about savoring a rare foreign policy success as it is about long-term strategy.

“The Burma/Myanmar policy has been Obama’s only success in East Asia, if one can call any foreign policy a success. Because the Burmese indicated interest in reform, the Obama administration, led by the State Department, took the lead,” he said, adding that the Burmese administration sent signals to the US as early as March 2009 that it was ready to begin political reforms.

Steinberg, who warned that the US should continue to focus on reforms and not on national elections slated to take place in 2015, also dismissed objections to Obama’s visit next week.

“I think President Obama’s trip to Myanmar is important and helpful for the reform process. If one waits for a nice, tranquil, democratic society before visiting, then he could not go to half the countries with which the US has diplomatic relations,” he said.

Whatever the reasons for Obama’s visit, some Burmese are simply glad to see yet another sign that their country has finally come in from the cold, after half a century of isolation and pariah status.

“I don’t care if he comes for just one hour,” said one Rangoon-based businessman. “It will be a pleasure to welcome him.”