Embracing The New Burma

Earlier today, Obama met with Burmese President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, making him the first sitting US president to visit Burma. Days before, the Treasury Department announced that it was relaxing trade sanctions that were instituted nearly a decade ago. Josh Kurtlantzick worries about the pace of the administration’s diplomatic shift:

Certainly, the United States and other leading democracies should support Thein Sein and Suu Kyi’s reform efforts, help address the refugee crises in Kachin State and Arakan State, among other places. … But the White House is moving much faster. It is restoring military-military ties with Myanmar, despite the history of atrocities and the possibility that the army may be involved in stirring up the violence in Arakan State. It is pushing forward with closer diplomatic cooperation, and increasingly is trying to involve Myanmar in its broader Asia-Pacific strategy, known as the “pivot” to the region.

He argues that the “White House should consider waiting to see more concrete outcomes before going ahead with significant military ties, greater aid, and lifting sanctions forever.” Maung Zarni notes that the military junta still operates behind the scenes, calling the shots on reform:

The generals are … pursuing reforms only for their own long-term survival, both as powerful military families and as the most powerful institution in the country. As a direct consequence, they will remain wholly unprepared to do the needful in terms of what will really promote public welfare and advance the cause of freedom, human rights and democracy. As a matter of fact, the generals’ reforms are contradictory, reversible and fragile, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself has repeatedly stressed. They are confined to such narrow domains as freedom of speech, new business regulations and investment laws—that is, the areas important to middle-class Western liberals and attractive to venture capitalists and corporations. 

Evan Osnos, meanwhile, hails Obama’s visit:

For all the fears of what lies ahead for Burma, it is impossible not to marvel at the sheer improbability of all that has happened already: that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be sitting in the open air in Rangoon, in the garden of the home where Aung San Suu Kyi once endured years of house arrest. If the Administration has been aggressive—hasty, some charge—in pushing for signs of progress in Burma, it is perhaps because moments of such stark political change are exceedingly rare, and they are desperate to seize it.

Burma has always carried more symbolic power than its obscure profile suggests. Orwell knew that, and it seems Obama does, too. Burma’s becoming, he said today, “a test of whether a country can transition to a better place.”