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?

Khin Maung Win/AP
Boatmen wait for passengers at a jetty Friday, Nov. 9, in Sittwe, Rakhine state, western Myanmar. Myanmar's government says it 'warmly welcomes' President Obama's decision to visit the country this month, noting it will increase the momentum of democratic reform. Obama will become the first US president to visit the once pariah nation, which is emerging from decades of military rule.

Rarely has a country been brought back into the American fold as fast as Myanmar (also known as Burma) has. 

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a civilian government – though still tightly controlled by the military – released hundreds of political prisoners, and rescinded its ban on Ms.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This summer the EU rescinded almost all of its sanctions on Myanmar.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?

The International Crisis Group (ICG), which is publishing a report on the country next Monday, says all is not well in the Southeast Asian nation. An advance copy of the report, "Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon," details a host of worries, most pressing; the violence that started out targeting Rohingyas but has apparently spread to the country's Muslim minority in general. 

In the last two weeks of October, a further 89 people were killed in the communal fighting. And in a separate ethnic clash along the Thailand border, 32,000 more were driven from their homes in the Christian Karen state.

The ICG argues that the very lifting of decades of oppression can create communal violence as new freedoms lead to political jockeying.

Unquestionably. In Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, small ethnic and religious wars flared across that sprawling nation, costing thousands of lives.

Myanmar, like Indonesia, is a patchwork of ethnicities that have spent much of the country's modern history in a tense relationship with the central government, when not in open revolt. Even new media freedoms, often seen as an antidote to violence, could have been part of the problem.

"The transition has opened up unprecedented space to organize that has been denied for decades, including for long-suppressed nationalist causes," the ICG writes. "It has allowed sub-national groups to air bitter grievances and issue a call to arms without moderation or censorship. Access to the internet has only aided the spread of these ideas."

The Rohingya people are classified as illegal migrants, although many of them came from modern day Bangladesh to Myanmar during British rule. And some 800,000 of them do not have official Burmese citizenship, despite having lived in the country for generations.

The issue surrounding the Rohingya minority, and Islam in general, is a powder keg in the majority Buddhist country.

In the ICG's words: "The experience of others in the region and the country’s own past suggest that communal tensions can be exploited and inflamed for political gain. In particular, there is a real risk that the violence in Rakhine State will take on a more explicitly Buddhist-Muslim character, with the possibility of clashes spreading to the many other areas where there are minority Muslim populations. This would have very serious consequences for stability and reform."

The real test of change in the country will be in 2015, when full parliamentary elections are held.

Until now, all change has largely been at the pleasure of the military, which remains political powerful.

"There is a serious risk of instability if existing power holders feel threatened by their inevitable loss of political power (which is different from a serious risk of a return to authoritarianism, which is unlikely), or if important constituencies are marginalized," argues the ICG. "It will be necessary for the NLD to ensure that its expected electoral success in 2015 does not come at the expense of the broad representation needed to reflect the country’s diversity and ensure an inclusive and stable transition – whether by introducing some form of proportional representation, reaching a transitional national unity agreement with the current government, or building coalitions with other parties."

If all goes well, the Obama administration’s overture toward Myanmar will go down as a major foreign policy achievement, and more importantly signal a brighter future for Mynmar’s 48 million people. But there are challenges and pitfalls ahead, and with each concession the US and other major powers make before 2015, a potential carrot to offer for positive change is spent.

Hopefully, Obama will not have gone to Myanmar too soon.

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