Myanmar’s president in the White House: The U.S. is primarily pursuing geopolitical interests during the historical visit from Southeast Asia because hardly any other country offers so many sources of raw materials. There will probably be scarcely any room for criticism of human rights violations.
Burma was the last problem that the diplomats of both countries needed to clear out of the way. Burma — that’s what the U.S. even today officially calls the country that was given the name Myanmar, meaning “fast and strong people,” by the military junta of 1989. But when President Obama receives head of state Thein Sein this Monday, he will, in a most official manner, speak of “Myanmar.”
As is always the case when high diplomacy is involved, it is a matter of courtesy with ulterior motives: The issue is not that for the first time since 1966 — during the escalation of the Vietnam War — a head of state from the southeastern Asian nation is a guest in the White House. According to the White House, the tensions in the country and the development of democracy are on the agenda of this meeting, which was preceded by Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November. But, ultimately, the U.S. will be pursuing tangible geopolitical interests during the historic visit.
Located between India and China, the two most populous countries in the world, Myanmar cannot yet be attributed to any sphere of interest. Not until 2011 did the new government carefully begin to open the country to the outside after years of isolation. Internal reforms were also initiated: President Thein Sein, who turned from head of the military government into president after a controversial election, eased censorship and liberalized the economy. In addition, he again resumed dialogue with the opposition under Aung San Suu Kyi and released political prisoners.
Business People from All over the World Flock to Myanmar
Thein Sein is now in the comfortable position of being courted by China as well as the U.S. In the process, it is a matter of a possible role as an ally in the Pacific arena toward which the Obama government is explicitly directing its foreign policy, as well as economic issues.
Oil, natural gas, zinc, copper, rare earth elements, gemstones: Hardly any other country offers so many untapped sources of raw materials in an age of diminishing reserves. The infrastructure for development is still lacking, but, along with a few backpackers, business people from all over the world are presently flocking to Myanmar. “Myanmar will not be an easy place to do business initially, but we see it as a long-term opportunity,” Stuart Dean, chief executive of General Electric’s operations in ASEAN, said some time ago — a strategy that many firms are pursuing.
Along with the raw materials, a potentially massive market of 60 million inhabitants beckons, even if consumer spending is negligible after decades of dictatorship. In five years, Thein Sein promised in 2012, the size of the local economy will certainly triple.
Primarily in the last years of the military junta that practically ruled the country since 1965, the West blanketed the country with sanctions, while neighboring countries, including China, invested there. Since the now 68-year-old Thein Sein became president in 2011, the military stepped into the background politically and Thein Sein introduced his first democratic reforms, the interest of the West has once again awakened. Most sanctions have been lifted in the meantime; with gestures like the release of 21 more political prisoners a few days ago, the government of Myanmar is signaling its good will.
Critics see in such actions primarily skillful political public relations: 200 political prisoners still sit in the country’s prison cells. In several regions of the country there are repeated battles between the army and numerous resistance groups.
100,000 Rohingya Fled Because of Buddhist Violence
Additionally, in the eyes of human rights organizations, the government is not committed enough to stopping the violence of Buddhists against the Rohingya Muslim minority, as a consequence of which more than 200 people have died and more than 100,000 have had to flee. “Thein Sein's government has done little or nothing to investigate the killings and abuses and to hold people accountable for these crimes,” David Mepham from Human Rights Watch recently recognized, coming to the conclusion that the West had been too quick to lift sanctions.
Experts, meanwhile, see the reform process in danger from the continuing ethnic conflicts and religious violence. All the same, Thein Sein said in an interview with The Washington Post on Sunday that the military will always play a large role in the country. The population is also dissatisfied because they have profited little from the reforms up to now.
Even if Barack Obama should address this, any criticism that is too loud will not be heard in Washington; the race for the favor of the politicians in Myanmar has once again picked up speed. For some weeks, China has actively sought to come close to the opposition, who primarily received support from the West during the time of the junta. “Alarm bells are going off in Beijing,” said the online version of the renowned Irrawaddy magazine. “China is now keenly observing Washington’s policy in Southeast Asia — and taking steps to ensure its own relevance in Burma remains intact.”