President Obama used his trip to Myanmar Monday to signal – not just to the former pariah state but to all of Asia – that the United States will extend a hand of friendship and economic cooperation to all countries that live peacefully and respect the rights of their citizens.
By Monday evening Mr. Obama was in Phnom Penh, where he was to dine with Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, another Southeast Asian country where human rights experts see worrisome limits to basic human rights.
But in Myanmar, Obama delivered a nationally televised speech in which he – as the first US president to visit the longtime military-ruled state, also known as Burma – invoked one of the themes of his 2009 inaugural address. He offered America’s hand to adversaries willing to “unclench their fist.”
Obama said his visit was fulfillment of that promise and a message to unmoved regimes – like North Korea – that America’s hand is still extended. He also made it clear that he chose to visit Yangon (Rangoon) – not the new national capital in Naypyidaw – because Yangon is the largest city and intellectual heart of the country, as well as the seat of the Burmese people’s long struggle for freedom.
“Here in Rangoon, I want to send a message across Asia,” Obama said. “We don’t need to be defined by the prisons of the past, we need to look forward to the future.”
Obama was criticized for making the trip to Myanmar by some human-rights groups that say the country still has a long way to go in securing political reforms, and that political prisoners are still locked up. But Obama said that, far from celebrating a completed transition, his trip was meant to recognize the considerable reforms Myanmar has already accomplished and to encourage its leaders to continue the process.
The diverse audience at Yangon University interrupted the speech with applause just twice, perhaps most enthusiastically when he said that a democracy’s most important “office holder” is “the citizen.”
Obama met with the country’s president, Thein Sein, a longtime military leader, and with political activist Aung San Suu Kyii, who was forced to live for years under house arrest but was this year elected a member of parliament.
Like Ms. Suu Kyii, Obama is a Nobel peace prize laureate, and his speech – in which he spoke of the crucial role that respect for minorities’ rights plays in ensuring peace and prosperity – was a reminder of why he was awarded the Nobel his first year in office, when some critics said he did not yet deserve it.
By broadening his Myanmar speech to all of Asia, Obama was also signaling that the “pivot to Asia” he announced for US foreign policy earlier in his first term does not concern only security and military issues, but will also emphasize democratic reforms and expansion of broad-based economic prosperity.
While in Cambodia, Obama will also attend a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is set for Tuesday. The visit comes as a rising China adopts an increasingly aggressive stance with its neighbors over a series of potentially destabilizing territorial disputes.
On this trip, Obama has reaffirmed his view that a rising China is good for the region. But he is expected to underscore the US position that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere in east Asia involve some of the world’s crucial trade routes and must be resolved peacefully and multilaterally.
At the same time, Obama insists that US policy in the region and his famous “pivot” are not about containing China. Asia’s leaders, including China’s, will be attuned to Obama’s words in the summit in Phnom Penh to see how he envisions the US role in the prosperous and fast-changing region.