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What Obama will accomplish with a visit to Myanmar

With the Myanmar visit, President Obama will showcase one of his foreign-policy accomplishments and will underscore a US commitment to supporting Asia’s political and economic development.

By Staff writer / November 9, 2012

This file photo shows Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meeting with Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar. President Barack Obama will embark on a trip to Southeast Asia and become the first U.S. president to visit Cambodia as well as Myanmar where he will hail the country’s shift to democracy after five decades of military rule.

AP Photo/Khin Maung Win, File

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Washington

President Obama’s decision to reward Myanmar with a presidential visit later this month, in recognition of the Southeast Asian country’s emergence from authoritative rule, might be compared to the Nobel committee bestowing its peace prize on Mr. Obama in 2009, the first year of his presidency.

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Both rewards could be viewed as at least partly aspirational in nature.

By going to Myanmar (also known as Burma) on Nov. 19, Obama will be showcasing one of the foreign-policy accomplishments of his first term. For decades a pariah state run by a severe military junta, Myanmar over the past two years has undertaken remarkable political and economic reforms – reforms that have been matched by a sequential easing of US sanctions and other forms of American encouragement, including a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton late last year.

But most Southeast Asia experts caution that Myanmar still has a difficult path ahead as it continues to open up. “President Obama’s visit to Burma has the opportunity to be the most significant step in the effort to support human rights and democracy in Burma,” US Rep. Joseph Crowley (D) of New York, a longtime activist on reforms in Myanmar, said Thursday after the White House announcement of Obama’s trip.

“Substantial progress has been made, but there is still much more to be done,” Representative Crowley added, noting that “outstanding issues” including completing political reforms and releasing more political prisoners remain to be addressed.

Other Myanmar analysts go farther, warning that the accolades could encourage the country’s leaders to rest on their laurels and – having received the US president for a historic first visit and seen US sanctions removed – could slow or stop the reform process.

“There’s nothing yet that’s permanent about the reforms, and I do worry that maybe we’re moving a little too fast,” says Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. But, he also points out, Myanmar’s most prominent force for reform, the activist Aung San Suu Kyi, supports visits to her country by international leaders, including Obama.

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