While in Bali, Indonesia, for a
well-deserved surf, sun and slumber break meeting of leaders from Southeast Asian nations and the Pacific Rim states, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would start off the SAD month of December by visiting the benighted kingdom of Myanmar. The last time a U.S. secretary of state set foot in those borders, more than 50 years ago, the country was known as Burma and looked forward, in vain, to joining the 19th century.
The west has isolated and sanctioned Myanmar in retaliation for perceived human rights abuses by its hard-line military regime. Complaints include the brutalization of pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007 and a blanket dismissal of 1990’s election results. In setting Clinton’s departure date, Obama cited “flickers of progress” made by a quasi-civilian leadership that was handed the reins in March. Myanmar is home to a 60-year civil war, the world’s worst medical care, child labor, human trafficking and an absence of free speech. Is Obama seeing glimmers of hope or flickers of illusion?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s call to rock the vote drew chants and cheers from her supporters, at home and internationally. Elections have not been scheduled.
Five factors to consider:
1) Obama felt obliged to obtain two foreign approvals for Clinton’s visit: China, the behemoth at Myanmar’s northeastern border, has dumped billions of dollars into developing the country’s mines, forestry operations and oil and gas pipelines. China has also played friendly with Myanmar’s shunned military government, but felt shunned itself this year when Myanmar’s so-called civilian leaders suspended a China-backed dam project. Obama’s crew claims it notified China of plans to send Clinton to Myanmar. The administration (perhaps with cynical irony) says it expects China will “be supportive” and accept Clinton’s visit as a sign of increased political stability for Myanmar, reducing the likelihood of chaos on China’s borders. Obama also cleared Clinton’s visit directly with Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace laureate of Myanmar, San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under arrest after her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won national elections in 1990. Beyond rewarding NLD candidates with imprisonment, the military paid no regard to the 1990 ballot results.
2) What a difference a phone call makes. Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi received the news of Secretary of State Clinton’s guest appearance from President Obama while the president flew from Australia to Indonesia on Air Force One Thursday night. On Friday morning, “Mother Suu” galvanized her National League for Democracy by declaring that it would participate in a political system that has persecuted it for decades. Mother Suu’s party boycotted Myanmar’s most recent round of sham balloting, but is eager to put forth candidates in an upcoming special parliamentary election. Aung San Suu Kyi may herself run for one of the 48 open seats.
3) Myanmar’s civilian leaders have not been civilians for very long. Civilian president U Thein Sein took office in March 2011, after soldiering four decades in the military, exiting at the rank of lieutenant general. U Thein served as Myanmar’s prime minister from 2007 to 2011, having been appointed to the post by the ruling military junta. The president’s long career as a military officer is a shared history that unifies all of Myanmar’s top civilian officials.
4) One little hitch to Myanmar’s parliamentary elections: Aung San Suu Kyi’s call to rock the NLD vote drew chants and cheers from her supporters, at home and internationally. The elections have not been scheduled.
5) The regime says Myanmar; Obama Says Burma: The military bosses switched Burma’s name to Myanmar in 1989, a year after they killed thousands of people who had called themselves Burmese and insisted upon right of free assembly. The United Nations swallowed the name-over, but the form Burma is preferred by antagonists who object to an unelected regime ditching a country’s official name. For instance, President Obama, when announcing Secretary of State Clinton’s Myanmar adventure, said: “The persecution of democratic reformers, the brutality shown toward ethnic minorities and the concentration of power in the hands of a few … has challenged our conscience and isolated Burma from … much of the world.”