Obama to visit Myanmar, an overture to a one-time pariah
President Obama's trip to Myanmar comes as the capstone of a stunningly fast rapprochement with a country the US once treated as a pariah. Is it too soon?
Rarely has a country been brought back into the American fold as fast as Myanmar (also known as Burma) has.Skip to next paragraph
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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Starting in late 2010, the military junta that has run the country since 1962 stunningly reversed course.
Not only did it release Aun San Suu Kyi, whose political party won the 1990 elections that the military promptly ignored, from almost two decades of imprisonment and house arrest, but allowed her unprecedented freedom of movement and political organization.
Last year the country swore in a civilian government – though still tightly controlled by the military – released hundreds of political prisoners, and rescinded its ban on Ms. Aun San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
This year, the country again released hundreds of political prisoners, held parliamentary by-elections the NLD won in a landslide, and promised elections for a new parliament in 2015.
The pace of change in Myanmar, a country whose ruling generals implacably resisted outside pressure for change for decades, even as the country descended into penury under the weight of US sanctions and the corrupt and capricious rule of the military, has been matched by American and European overtures.
This summer the EU rescinded almost all of its sanctions on Myanmar. This June the US suspended many of its own sanctions, particularly allowing US firms to invest in the government-controlled oil and gas industry, and sent Derek Mitchell as the first US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years.
Now President Obama is making Myanmar a stop on his first international trip since winning reelection. The visit will be the first time a sitting US president has ever visited the country (when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last year, she was the most senior US official to visit the country in five decades). Obama's trip, slated for Nov. 17-20, will also include stops in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as part of his ongoing push for an increased US policy focus on Asia.
Has there ever been faster restoration of US relations with a country it had once worked so hard to isolate, in the absence of either a US invasion or a revolution? I can't think of one.
The once-maligned leaders are being brought in from the cold. The US even indicated in October that Burmese officers would be invited to the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand as official observers.
The Obama administration's motivations are clear: Demonstrate the benefits of the generals’ political opening and turn toward democracy.
But with the breathless rush to friendship comes a country where ethnic tensions still dominate, and ethnic violence, specifically against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, that the generals have been either unwilling or unable to stop.
To much criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided both condemning and condoning the specific violence against the Rohingya, which saw 75,000 displaced in Rakhine state this June.
While she's a hero to many for her principled opposition to the military junta – at great personal cost – she's first and foremost a politician with a nationalist constituency that looks askance at many of the country's minorities, perhaps the Muslims chief among them.
So, is the US moving too fast?