The president of the United States participated in a two-day Association of Southeast Nations summit in Myanmar — formerly Burma — which is the greatest international event in the history of this former British colony. Can he convince President Thein Sein to make further reforms?
On Nov. 14, followed around by a team of journalists, world leaders arrived in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar. This event would have been unthinkable during the last half century, when the military junta ruled the country and Burma was a pariah. The ASEAN-U.S. summit is the greatest international event in the history of the former colony, one which became much more isolated after regaining its independence in 1948.
President Barack Obama, having only two years left in his term, perceives opening Burma to the world as an important achievement as president. Washington, which is competing with China for influence in Asia, has succeeded in rescuing Burma from Beijing.
In 2012, Obama made a historic visit to Burma. Enthusiastically welcomed, he met with the new president, Thein Sein, who two years ago exchanged a soldier’s uniform for civilian clothes. The U.S. sent an ambassador to Burma, pledged aid to the country, and welcomed it into the family of nations. For the former general, it was a reward for releasing political prisoners and lifting censorship, and represented a deposit for further reform.
Burma Under Control of the Army
This current visit is much harder. The White House had recently announced that the Burmese transformation had come to a complete standstill. Further, Obama lacks any bargaining power as a result of Washington waiving most of the economic sanctions against Burma at the beginning of the 1990s.
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, warned Obama about this. After 15 years of house arrest, she was released in 2010 and began a dialogue with the generals who imprisoned her. For the United States, she represented the promise that Americans could become involved in the affairs of undemocratic Burma.
The Nobel laureate now accuses Washington of slowing the reforms. America is so content with the opening of Burma, it has stopped asserting influence over its government.
“It’s easy to understand its frustration,” writes Ko Ko Aung, Burmese commentator for the BBC. The army is still controlling relevant policy areas, and many war criminals are members of the government. For example, as cited in an account by lawyers from Harvard, there is the case of the minister for internal affairs and former general, Aung Thaung, who is supposed to come before the judicial authorities for crimes during the period of the dictatorship. The army controls crucial sectors of the economy, and the parliament that appoints a quarter of all seats under the constitution is entirely at its beck and call.
Transformation might expedite the first democratic general elections for Parliament, as well as the presidential elections in 2015. The presidency could be won by the 69-year-old Suu Kyi, but she will be unable to participate without an amendment of the current constitution, as it excludes those candidates whose spouses or children are foreigners. Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aeris, a leading Tibet scholar, was British, and their two sons also hold British nationality.
But any change in the constitution would require consent from the president, as well as from three quarters of the Parliament.
Ethnic Powder Keg
The elections in 2015 are just one of the topics that were to be covered during the meeting with Thein Sein.
In larger cities, one can already find the Internet, cash machines, many independent newspapers and tourists. Yet, it remains hard to stifle ethnic conflicts.
Washington is alarmed by reports of ethnic cleansing in the state of Arakan. The victims are Rohingya Muslims, one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. In Burma, where dark-skinned farmers and fishers have lived for ages, they are officially perceived as vagrants from neighboring Bangladesh, who do not deserve full rights as citizens. In the last months, 100,000 Rohingya escaped from Arakan where Buddhist fanatics are organizing progroms. Another 100,000 people whose houses were burned are living on the city’s outskirts in dilapidated camps, without access to food or medication. Human rights defenders are warning against the threat of genocide.
After Beijing, Burma was to be another stop in Obama’s eight-day visit to Asia and Australia, a visit that was to end on Friday in Brisbane with participation in the G-20 summit. The president, who announced an American political pivot toward Asia in 2009, wants the U.S. to be more active in the region that fuels the economy of the world, and where the supremacy of China grows.