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Obama’s Visit to Myanmar

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 29, 2012

    US President Obama’s path breaking visit to Myanmar was part of the Asia visit (Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia) that he has undertaken at the very start of his second term. It is being seen as the next stage in ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘rebalancing’ and could set the basis for the Obama Administration’s next four years. Although brief, the visit could potentially have implications for Myanmar’s internal developments and external relations. At one level, it appears to redress some of the imbalance (due to over-dependence on China) that had crept into Myanmar’s external relations during its isolationist phase. At another level, apparently, Myanmar has succeeded in obtaining US support and approval for the democratisation process currently underway. Another visit that took place almost around this time was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India. In its own way this visit reaffirmed India-Myanmar relations just as Obama’s visit reaffirmed US-Myanmar relations.

    Domestic Situation

    Obama’s visit strengthens the hands of President U Thein Sein and has raised expectation in certain quarters that it would encourage the Myanmar government to address the democratisation and ethnic challenges.

    The democratisation challenge has created an uncertainty in the run up to the 2015 general elections in Myanmar because the 2008 Constitution continues to accord the military an important place. Without amendment to the Constitution and the military occupying 25 per cent seats in Parliament and regional legislatures, a complete democratic transition cannot be said to have occurred.

    The ethnic problem too remains as yet unresolved. This has a historic background to it, namely the failure to implement the Panglong agreement on autonomy. While the ethnic minorities have largely given up their earlier demands for secession, the demand for autonomy remains. The Muslim-Buddhist clashes in Rakhine State which left some 89 people dead has polarised the environment further. This has to be seen in the context of the ethnic composition of Myanmar society, where Bamars/Burmans constitute the majority and follow the Buddhist religion and the Rohingyas are not even counted among the ethnic nationalities of Myanmar because they have not been accorded citizenship. Hence some 800,000 Rohingyas (based within Myanmar) continue to be stateless. There are some 110,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in Rakhine State consequent to the ethnic clashes.1 Human rights organisations including Amnesty International have highlighted the plight of the Rohingyas and other multilateral organisations like the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have jumped into the fray (seeking to open a Yangon office). Myanmar has sought an additional $41 million by way of urgent aid relief to cover the period until June 2013.2 Curiously, the Myanmar politicians have been relatively quiet on this issue. The International Crisis Group rightly points out in its recent report that “political leaders must rise to the challenge of shaping public opinion rather than just following it.” The Bamar Buddhists, by labelling the Rohingyas as Bengalis and Bangladeshi immigrants and denying them citizenship rights, are only postponing the problem instead of facing it squarely.

    Obama’s remarks resonated with the popular mood: “No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation.” He spoke of the conflict in Kachin State and in Rakhine State: “ Today, we look at the recent violence in Rakhine State that has caused so much suffering, and we see the danger of continued tensions there…” Neighbours, including India, cannot continue to ignore the Rohingya problem either. While it is true that India does not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, it is a fact that the Rohingya problem is not exactly Myanmar’s internal problem anymore as some Rohingyas have sought refuge in New Delhi itself. If their flight from Myanmar continues unabated, there could be many more coming to India via Bangladesh. Bangladesh has many Rohingyas in refugee camps at Cox’s Bazaar and other places. Any influx from these camps could pose a demographic challenge to Mizoram and the southern part of Assam thereby exacerbating existing social tensions there.

    Myanmar’s Relationship with the USA

    Obama’s recent Asia visit is being seen as the next stage in ‘Pivot to Asia’ or ‘rebalancing’ and not quite as a ‘Contain China’ policy which some strategists in China interpret it as. Renewed engagement with Myanmar has two elements to it: the importance to Obama personally and importance to the United States as a country. At a personal level, Obama’s Kenyan grandfather had served as a cook with a captain in the British Army in Burma during World War-II.3 At the same time, Obama’s visit held immense strategic and economic significance to the United States and the region.

    The United States had hitherto followed the dual-pronged policy of disengagement and sanctions. This had changed with the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2011. Obama confined his visit to Yangon - the city which is being typecast as the economic capital - and did not go to Naypyitaw - the political capital of Myanmar. The flood gates to US trade and investment have begun to open. To an extent this has been aided by the investment and economic reforms that the Myanmar government has been gradually introducing. The Cola wars have begun. The showrooms of foreign cars have sprouted in cities which had hardly seen much traffic. Speaking at the University of Yangon, Obama noted the improvements which had already taken place, including a US Ambassador in Rangoon and easing of sanctions. He re-established the USAID mission in Myanmar with a possible assistance (depending on the extent of reform) of $170 million during 2012-13.

    Nuclear Transparency

    Myanmar’s nuclear programme with North Korean involvement had been a major bone of contention in its relations with the United States.4 In anticipation of the US President’s visit, President U Thein Sein approved the measure to sign the Additional Protocol to IAEA’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement subject to Parliamentary ratification. This will allow the IAEA to testify the absence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities in Myanmar including cooperation with Pyongyang.

    Myanmar’s Relations with China

    Myanmar’ relations with China developed at a time when the Western world boycotted it following the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988. Beijing seized the opportunity to exploit Myanmar for its abundant natural resources, (particularly energy – hydroelectricity, oil and gas), and its strategic location providing access to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar’s military welcomed the economic and military aid and the infrastructure offered by China. It also relied on China for diplomatic support (veto power) in the UN Security Council. However, as Bertil Lintner5 points out, a change in Myanmar’s China policy soon became evident when it proceeded to prosecute the pro-Chinese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt; employing its forces to push back Chinese in Kokang area across the border; and suspending the Myitsone dam. According to Lintner, this was a calculated decision the Myanmar military took following a study by a military officer, which concluded that despite US human rights concerns, an opportunity existed to reset US-Myanmar relations.6 This course of action was then meticulously pursued and culminated in the Obama visit.

    During his tour, Obama visited three Southeast Asian countries that have felt the intensity of Chinese influence - Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Even as China adopts an assertive stance in the South China Sea, while laying claim to a “peaceful rise”, the Obama visit certainly has created apprehensions in Beijing as it is perhaps seen as encirclement. Sections of China’s academia have opposed Obama’s Pivot policy terming it as a “stupid choice” and believe that any attempt to contain China is simply destined to fail. On the other hand, the ASEAN States fear having to choose between the United States and China. Thitinan Ponudhirak of ISIS, Chulalongkorn University, rightly notes that if China were to moderate its South China Sea claims and the United States gives an assurance that its Pivot policy is “benign” then the ASEAN States would not be forced to make a choice.7

    Conclusion

    The Obama visit has generated much expectation but as the dust settles down, the reality check would begin. There are many pending problems that Myanmar has to tackle. To begin with, the Constitution is still military-dominated. Institutions still need to be developed and that would take time. As the economy opens up, the question of equitable distribution of wealth would begin to arise. The ethnic turmoil in the country continues in Rakhine and Kachin States. Rohingyas are still struggling to be acknowledged as a legitimate ethnic group and demanding citizenship rights. The country will also need to evolve a fresh approach in dealing with neighbouring China. Myanmar’s challenges are many as it prepares to lead ASEAN in 2014 and to hold general elections in 2015. It can resolve some of these challenges by working together with those of its neighbours who have had the benefit of democratic experience and understand it better.

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