Obama Does Delicate Dance on Historic Visit to Burma

On a historic trip to Rangoon, Obama praised Burma’s democracy efforts, but said the generals must stay the course. Lennox Samuels reports.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

Just a few years ago, the main gate to Burma’s once-venerable Rangoon University (or Yangon University, if you prefer the government’s lexicon) was chained shut, secured by a big, rusting padlock. Across town, any Western journalist—or tourist, for that matter—walking by the home of Aung San Suu Kyi drew suspicious stares from the soldiers guarding the compound, within which languished the Lady, under house arrest for much of the last two decades.

But in a shockingly swift turnaround, the president of the United States—with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in tow—swept into the university Monday and delivered a stirring call for greater democracy in a nation that began the process of shedding its pariah status a scant 18 months ago. And President Obama did so after leaving Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence, where he lauded the icon for her “unbreakable courage and determination.” Obama’s historic visit was the latest step in Washington’s Asia pivot, a strategy predicated on the recognition that the U.S. must link its foreign policy more closely to the continent—seen as the future fount of economic and political power. Not coincidentally, this pivot positions America to blunt the influence of China, which has been steadily raising its profile—and military presence—in the region.

“I think it’s an easy victory for the U.S. Myanmar [Burma] is a neighbor and client of China,” Hans Vriens, managing partner of Vriens & Partners political consulting firm in Singapore, told The Daily Beast. “Now it’s embracing the U.S. And it’s about more than Myanmar. It is about ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member]. Washington used to tell ASEAN, if we are going to talk, Myanmar has to leave the room. Now it can talk to all of them.”

If ordinary Burmese in the nation of 60 million seemed stunned by the presence of the first sitting American president ever to visit their country—exhorting them to new heights of freedom—it was with good reason. Since independence from Britain in 1962, the nation had been ruled by a cabal of military generals as repressive as they were venal. But a year and a half ago, the aging brass retired to their barracks, and the nation came under the rule of a civilian government led by President Thein Sein. He also is a former general. But still.

Change has come in a torrent. Thein Sein released Suu Kyi from house arrest—and she promptly won a seat in Parliament. The government eased restrictions on journalists. Started to reform labor laws. Banned child labor. Abandoned its implacable opposition to the International Red Cross. Signaled its acceptance of the United Nations human-rights office in Rangoon. Released dozens of political prisoners, including 66 on Monday to mark Obama’s visit. Obama announced the reestablishment of the U.S. AID mission in Rangoon. The government said it would sign nuclear safeguards.

An incredulous—and skeptical—Soe Aung, a democracy activist, tweeted; “really? I mean really?”

“Very few regimes have tried to do this kind of opening, of reforming their economy, so totally,” an impressed Vriens told me. “To stop the longest civil war in the world is extraordinary. It really has been an amazing example of a political transformation—albeit incomplete.”

Incomplete indeed. There’s no guarantee that the generals will keep their self-imposed low profile forever. No one knows how far Thein Sein will be allowed to go. The Parliament is still heavily in the hands of the government, with some 25 percent of seats reserved for the military. Suu Kyi leads the opposition, but it is not exactly potent. Violence persists in Rakhine state to the northwest, where ethnic Rohingyas, largely Muslim in a mostly Buddhist country, live as stateless people, feared and loathed by most Burmese, including Buddhist monks who were willing to die in pro-democracy street demonstrations five years ago, but now openly advocate forcible removal of Rohingyas. Even Suu Kyi has declined to publicly support the Rohingyas. Low-grade insurgencies fester in other states, notably among the Karen minority.

Obama did his best to speak for minorities in his speech at the university, saying no reform process will succeed without national reconciliation. “Your country will be stronger if it draws on the strengths of all its people,” he declared.

“I thought the speech was very good and will definitely embolden people of Burma,” Aung Zaw, who edits Irrawaddy magazine, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and who attended the speech, told me in an email. “I observed people in the room, mostly young and students, intellectuals and processors—NGOs and civil society groups and ethnic minorities—were inspired listening to his speech.”

Soe Aung is not persuaded, though. “It’s leading to more blank checks [for the government] when they [the Burmese opposition] don’t have much leverage left,” he told me in a tweet.

The government’s main thrust for now, in any event, is economic reform. Thein Sein has quickly received help from the U.S., the European Union, and others, including Australia, which all have relaxed economic sanctions. Embargoes were such that U.S. companies could not invest in Burma, and European companies didn’t dare to invest for fear of damaging their international reputations. Now the country is bracing for billions of dollars in foreign investment, in everything from oil and gas to telecoms and consumer goods. The government wants to rapidly grow the number of mobile phones from 3 million to 30 million. (Merely acquiring a mobile-phone account remains an exercise in red tape and graft.)

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There is almost a giddiness pervading the country. “I’m still walking in my dream,” longtime activist Min Zawoo told the BBC.

In Rangoon, the streets and hotels are jammed with representatives of foreign companies, foreign-government officials, entrepreneurs—and grifters looking to cash in on the economic opening. The French oil giant Total, once vilified for being one of the few major Western players to operate in Burma, is the target of almost every Burmese looking for a job. Millions, however, remain poor and neglected, in Burma, the second-poorest country in Asia. Rangoon is awash in beggars, many of them minorities.

The government, remarkably, appears to have decided to throw everything up for grabs—and to be transparent about it. And it seems to be acknowledging it has little idea how to go about a reform process that covers all economic sectors. “They admit they have no idea how to reform the economy,” Vriens said bluntly. Small wonder, considering that the country curled up hedgehoglike 50 years ago and told the world to stay away.

Speaking at a university where Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the legendary patriot Aung San, studied and where students once protested against British rule, Obama made it clear that his trip—along with the easing of sanctions and a fresh pledge of $170 million in aid—was a considered reward for the government’s moves toward democracy. And that more carrots would be awarded for further progress. He also suggested, however, that any recidivism would be met with a yanking of support. The president is giving the regime an “incomplete” mark rather than a passing grade, calling the government’s effort a “democracy project.” Nor was he prepared to invest the government with 100 percent legitimacy, insisting on visiting the leading city of Rangoon rather than Naypyidaw, the new interior city the generals arbitrarily established as the capital in 2005. “People were glad that he didn’t go to Naypyidaw and instead met President Thein Sein in Rangoon,” said Aung Zaw.

Obama may want to pivot toward Asia, but he is not naive enough to think that the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi and some political prisoners and implementation of some reforms amount to far-reaching and permanent change. The regime, however, seems determined to stay the course. Indeed, the generals’ wooing of Aung San Suu Kyi was a canny move, and she appears to be now invested in a joint process with them. “She and Thein Sein are in this together, and they both know that,” said Hans Vriens.

Obama, who has been criticized for going too far and moving too quickly to support Burma, is trying to herd the regime in the right direction, and prevent it from straying.

“I hope that the visit and U.S. engagement will put the generals in a straitjacket,” said Aung Zaw.