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.
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.
“I really think we have to defer to Aung San Suu Kyi on whether or not it’s the right time for this visit,” Mr. Lohman says, adding that a list of American leaders of all political stripes have already visited the country to show their support. “If [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell can go to Burma, I guess Obama can, too.”
In Myanmar, Obama will sit down with the country’s reformist president, Thein Sein, and will also call on Ms. Suu Kyi, who lived for years under house arrest but is now a member of the country’s newly elected parliament. Both Obama and Suu Kyi are Nobel laureates.
Obama will be joined in his visit by Secretary Clinton.
But the president’s reasons for visiting Myanmar transcend the country’s borders. One of the hallmarks of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his “pivot” to Asia. By visiting Myanmar, Obama will be underscoring how the American pivot should not be seen simply in defense and security terms, but as part of a US commitment to supporting and participating in Asia’s political and economic development.
The president’s “overall message is one of engagement and steadfast American involvement in the region,” Lohman says.
The visit will also send a loud message to China: that America intends to promote democracy and economic partnership in the region, even as it encourages peaceful and negotiated settlement of the potentially explosive territorial conflicts China has with several of its neighbors.
After Myanmar, Obama will attend the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia. There, Obama’s message should be clear, regional experts say: that America is a partner with staying power, especially while partners in the region deal with the ramifications of an increasingly powerful China.
“In Phnom Penh [at the ASEAN summit], Obama has to focus on the maritime issues involving the South China Sea, and his message has to focus on resolving these claims without resort to coercion,” Lohman says.
That may irritate China, which likes to try to convince Washington that, while it’s welcome in the region, “There’s a new sheriff in town,” he adds.
With that in mind, Lohman says, China will take Obama’s trip to Myanmar in stride – as long as the United States doesn’t try to turn it into something aimed at China and its rising regional role.
“The Chinese don’t want to push the US out entirely. They value the stability that a certain US presence helps maintain,” he says. “But they do aim ultimately to create a new order in the region – one with a diminished role for the US.”