Despite Faltering Progress, Obama Still Has Faith in Myanmar
While acknowledging democratic reforms have stalled and that the country’s human rights record has in some respects worsened, President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he remains hopeful about Myanmar’s future. "We recognize that change is hard and it doesn’t always move in a straight line," Obama said after meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein ...
While acknowledging democratic reforms have stalled and that the country's human rights record has in some respects worsened, President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he remains hopeful about Myanmar's future.
While acknowledging democratic reforms have stalled and that the country’s human rights record has in some respects worsened, President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he remains hopeful about Myanmar’s future.
"We recognize that change is hard and it doesn’t always move in a straight line," Obama said after meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein on the first full day of his visit there. "But I am optimistic about the possibilities for Myanmar."
After decades of military rule, Thein Sein, himself a former general, has begun moving the country formerly known as Burma toward democracy, but hopes for reform have dissipated as Myanmar’s long-dominant military elite has refused to yield much of its power or reach a cease-fire with various armed minority groups. The government has also failed to prevent and, in some cases has been complicit in, what human rights groups describe as the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group.
Although he’s in town for regional summits in the long-isolated country, Obama is spending much of his three-day visit focusing on Myanmar’s reforms, meeting with Thein Sein, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, civil society leaders, and others.
"Our consistent aim and goal will be to see that this transition is completed so that it delivers concrete benefits for the people," Obama said.
In line with this aim, the White House said on Thursday that, per the Burmese government’s request, the United States will start sending Peace Corps volunteers to Myanmar in late 2015. This new outpost for the Peace Corps, an organization created by President Kennedy to counter Soviet influence during the Cold War, is a sign that the White House still sees Myanmar as a key part of its "Pivot to Asia," aimed at countering its newer sometime-rival, China.
But Obama may have little leverage to press Thein Sein to continue the country’s transition toward democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic opposition leader, has questioned the U.S. government’s rush to embrace the apparently reformist government. And human rights groups say the suspension of economic sanctions two years ago undermined Washington’s ability to push for further reforms.
Obama was notably more outspoken about Myanmar’s shortfalls than he was about China’s human rights record during his visit to Beijing just days before. And he wasn’t the only one coming down hard on the Burmese government. Shortly after arriving for the East Asia and ASEAN summits on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the plight of the Rohingya and other minorities, "who face daily discrimination, oppression and injustice," was a major U.N. concern, and, along with White House officials, he urged Myanmar’s government to allow Rohingya to become citizens.
Myanmar officials reacted angrily to Ban saying "Rohingya" because the Burmese government claims the group’s members are "Bengali" intruders who aren’t entitled to citizenship or basic rights.
Obama, for his part, used the sensitive "Rohingya" term back in 2012, during his first visit to Myanmar. Back then, the country’s reforms were looking more hopeful.
"The road ahead will be marked by huge challenges, and there will be those who resist the forces of change," Obama told a Yangon University crowd at the time. "But I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed, and the will of the people can lift up this nation and set a great example for the world. And you will have in the United States of America a partner on that long journey."
Despite what’s happened since, that’s still the president’s message.
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.