Today, U.S. President Barack Obama conducted his first visit to Burma, a country once shunned by the international community.
This is the first visit by an American President to the country. Burma represents Obama’s second stop in his three-country Southeast Asia trip, which kicked off in Bangkok, Thailand on Sunday, with the President visiting the Wat Pho Royal Monastery.
The U.S. President announced on Sunday that his trip to Burma represents an acknowledgment of the country’s efforts toward democratic transition, but not an endorsement of its government.
Obama’s statements came as a response to international human rights groups’ criticisms, which have emphasized that his visit comes prematurely and acts as a reward to a government that remains repressive and has gravely failed in protecting and promoting human rights.
Indeed, the Burmese government continues to hold over 300 political prisoners. However, its gravest abuses are committed against Rohingya Muslims, who mostly live in Rakhine state and are denied citizenship, because they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many of them have lived their entire lives in Burma. The UN has declared the Rohingya to be among the most persecuted groups in the world. Only this year, over 167 people were killed and around 111,000 were rendered homeless as a result of violent clashes in Rakhine in June and October.
Nevertheless, President Sein has made some efforts to demonstrate his country’s committed move toward democracy in anticipation of Obama’s visit. Last week, he released around 450 prisoners, none of whom were political detainees. The Burmese President further announced on Sunday that he would give amnesty to 66 more individuals, which were released today. Among them, two were prominent human rights activists, Myint Aye and Ye Zaw Htaik were freed from Loikaw Prison in Kayah state, northeast of Yangon.
Assessing Obama’s visit to Burma, some experts claim that the U.S. President is striving to capitalize on what is considered a ground-breaking success story for Obama’ policy of seeking to engage U.S. enemies. The U.S. President’s visit comes a year after taking the decision to relax the tough economic sanctions previously imposed on Burma, appointing a U.S. ambassador to the country as well as after Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visit to the country.
Obama met with Burmese President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was held under house arrest for over 15 years during the military junta’s rule and was finally released in 2010. During his talks with the Burmese President, Obama expressed confidence in the fact that a democratic and economic reform in Burma could lead to incredible development opportunities, but added that the road there was long. The two Presidents reached agreement for Burma's promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards.
When talking to Suu Kyi, Obama not only emphasized that she is an icon of democracy for people around the world, but also that today’s visit marks a new step in U.S.-Burmese relations.
Later on Monday, the President will leave for Cambodia to join a meeting of the ASEAN bloc.
This is the President’s fifth trip to Asia and his first since re-election. Obama’s visit is part of a long-term re-balancing strategy aiming to move the country away from Europe and the Middle East and allow it to continue filling in its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. The long-term goal is to contain China’s rising power in the region, by attracting some of its neighbours outside of its influence zone and making them U.S. allies. The trip is also aiming to substantially increase U.S. exports and leadership in the fastest growing part of the world and to advance U.S. ideals and interests.