US President Barack Obama pledged continued support for Burma’s nascent reform process, but called for greater efforts toward national reconciliation after decades of civil war and military dictatorship.
After meeting with President Thein Sein and joining Aung San Suu Kyi at the opposition leader’s lakeside villa, the president lauded the ongoing reforms in a speech at Rangoon University (above). But he added a note of caution regarding recent unrest in Arakan state and ceasefires with ethnic minority groups.
“No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation,” he said, which, DVB reports, received a roaring applause from the packed auditorium.
Washington had an “important” role to play on ethnic and minority issues, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the US is not the major or critical player in Myanmar. Other countries like China, India, Singapore, and Thailand are far more important.”
“We are confident that this support will continue through the difficult years that lie ahead,” she said. “The most difficult time in any transition is when you think that success is in sight. We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by a mirage of success.”
Some rights and democracy advocates have criticized the visit.
“It rewards Burma for things they’ve already been rewarded for, and it wastes enormous political capital which could have been saved up and used to reward future events,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
But Obama defended the decision to support the tentative reform process.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” he said. “This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”
“I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” he said. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”
Obama stressed his belief that active engagement is more likely to yield pro-democratic outcomes than passive marginalization.
“I’m not somebody who thinks the United States should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” Obama said.
Obama responded to a question about whether China offered a less complicated path toward prosperity, by saying that “democracy is a little messier than alternative systems of government, but that’s because democracy allows everybody to have a voice.”
“The notion somehow that you can take shortcuts and avoid democracy, and that that somehow is going to be the mechanism whereby you deliver economic growth, I think is absolutely false.”
As The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration is using the Asia trip, which includes a final stop in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit, as another step in its “pivot to Asia” aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing influence in the region.
White House aides said the president would announce Monday that the United States will reestablish in Burma a U.S. Agency for International Development mission and offer the country up to $170 million in new foreign aid over the next two years that would be conditional on the government continuing toward democratic reforms.
“The president’s trip marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,” Thomas E. Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “When the president says the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment.”
The visit would help “lock in this path forward,” Donilon said, while acknowledging the risks.
“We’re not naïve about this,” he said. “We absolutely are aware of the dangers of backsliding. And if that takes place, we’ll respond accordingly. But this really is a moment that we didn’t want to miss.”
Government officials announced plans to release 66 prisoners on Monday, including 45 political dissidents and ethnic minorities from rebel forces. The move follows last week’s release of over 400 prisoners, none of whom were political dissidents, according to rights groups.
“It is very worrisome that the November 15 prisoner release apparently did not include a single political prisoner – the message the leaders in Naypidaw are sending is they think they can play political games with human rights and Obama and the international community will look the other way,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
“The success or failure of President Obama’s trip to Burma should be judged by whether he actually gets firm commitments from the Burma President on human rights,” said Robertson.
The civilian-led military-backed government has shown a “serious intention” to reform the political system and get the military “out of the government,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
But he cautioned that the movement is in a “very precarious state,” noting that the country’s generals are guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and maintain control of the chairmanship.
“But everyone who’s in the cabinet, in the president’s office, and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, are working together and are determined to do this,” said Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the NSC in the George W. Bush administration. “So there is enough of a kernel .?.?. of seriousness to make the president’s trip worthwhile.”
Human rights activists, however, said that whatever progress Burma has made has suffered significant setbacks in the past several months, as the ethnic violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has accelerated. Burma released 452 prisoners this week in a good faith move ahead of Obama’s visit, but none were political detainees.
“There has to be a sustainable security solution so that people aren’t living in the kind of fear and, really, terror that they’re living with today,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.
For Obama, Burma “represents one of the few relatively unvarnished success stories in the democratic movement that he can point to during his time in office,” The New York Times reports:
By contrast, the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East have now become bogged down in more ambiguous outcomes, as in Libya, where Islamic extremists attacked a United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September, killing the ambassador and three other Americans. None of that anti-American sentiment was on display here Monday. By the time he left six hours later, the crowds had begun to thin and the country began to look ahead to a future that has yet to be written.
Obama’s visit is the latest manifestation of the administration’s pivot to Asia, a move largely driven by concern to counter authoritarian China’s growing influence in the region. But there is a risk of the policy backfiring if Beijing perceives the embrace of Burma as an aggressive effort to dilute or marginalize its influence, some commentators suggest.
In order to assuage Chinese anxiety, President Obama, should, first, “make clear that China-US-Myanmar relations are not a zero-sum game in which any gain for the US is a loss for China.,” writes Yale University researcher Josh Gordon:
Myanmar needs support from the US, China, ASEAN and its other neighbors to successfully implement sustainable and equitable reforms.
Second, President Obama should frame US support for reform in terms that the Chinese use: stability and “win-win” outcomes. Reform in Myanmar will make the country more stable and a more stable Myanmar will better protect China’s long-term interests by pushing Chinese investors to reach out to stakeholders. Chinese support for reform in Myanmar will result in a “win-win-win” situation which benefits Myanmar, the US and China.
“Many people inside Burma remain unaffected by the changes so far or wary about them being rolled back,” notes FPI’s Bork, who also cites the cautionary message of Min Zin and Brian Joseph in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, that “Burma remains a military dictatorship.”
There is also concern that the rush to democracy is leaving the country’s poor behind, The New York Times reports:
Stephen Groff, vice president of the Asian Development Bank, the Manila-based institution that re-engaged with Myanmar this year after a 25-year absence, compared the economic changes here to the liberalization of Vietnam’s economy, which began allowing free enterprise in the late 1980s. In both countries, changes came from within the leadership and thus were much more gradual than the convulsive uprisings seen, for example, during the Arab Spring….But continuity and stability also mean that the same government workers who served under the highly repressive junta are now responsible for breaking down the system they helped build.
Daw Suu Kyi and government advisers have warned that the government lacks the capacity to push the reform process forward at a faster pace.
“The international community expects too much — they need to lower their expectations,” said U Tin Maung Than, director of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, a research organization with close ties to the president’s office. “And the people need to lower their expectations, too.”
Democratic Voice of Burma is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.