US President Barack Obama's visit to Yangon was historic, and the sense of history stems from two very important realities.
The first is that the visit was the first ever to the country by an American president (Vice President Richard Nixon visited Myanmar, then known as Burma, in 1953). The second is that the Obama trip came at a rather dramatic moment in Myanmar’s history, considering the way it has been opening up to the outside world in the light of Aung San Suu Kyi’s emergence into freedom after years of internment.
The US leader visited Thailand before Myanmar, after which he moved on to Cambodia. Obviously, the Obama administration is now ready to reconfigure its relations with the countries of the region in ways that can benefit all. Besides, the US remains at this point a pivotal area in geopolitics that no nation can afford to ignore.
In Bangladesh, where the only US president to have visited remains Bill Clinton, interest in Obama and his policies have been intense. The re-elected leader of the US has always been regarded by Bangladeshis as a friend. And since his election as president in 2008, his administration has been greatly involved in ensuring a continuation and consolidation of democratic order in Bangladesh.
High-level US officials have on a number of occasions visited Dhaka and reassured Bangladeshis about Washington’s commitment to democratic expansion in Bangladesh. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Dhaka last year highlighted the significance Bangladesh happens to hold in American foreign policy.
Given such US interest in the growth and sustenance of democracy in Bangladesh, it would have made sense for Obama to include Dhaka on his itinerary. His trip would have enormously helped in an expansion of trade and political ties between the two nations.
We understand he was first invited to visit Bangladesh by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2009. The invitation was renewed last year. The question, though, is whether the invitation, in both instances, was made informally or whether official communication was made with the US authorities regarding a possible visit to Dhaka by President Obama. In other words, one wonders if the invitation was followed through on a more formal and diplomatic level by the Bangladesh Foreign Office.
Our foreign policy mandarins ought to have been more proactive in pursuing the matter. The US administration remains aware of the tensions that have marked Bangladesh-Myanmar ties over the Rohingya issue. The fact that even Suu Kyi has sought to give out the impression that there is an influx of people from Bangladesh into Myanmar rather than the other way round is disappointing, if not exactly alarming.
The Rohingya issue certainly affects Bangladesh directly. By extension, it affects everyone who has a sense of morality. Even so, the good bit about Dhaka-Yangon ties in recent times is the international arbitration in the maritime boundary dispute between the two countries, with results that went in favour of Bangladesh. That Myanmar accepted the decision in good grace is, we would like to think, a sign of its willingness to pave a fresh new diplomatic path to the future.
The Obama visit to Yangon should be regarded as a positive move on America’s part. And yet there is a wary China, a longtime Myanmar ally, which is a hint of how carefully Washington needs to warm up to Yangon. With Beijing as a rising economic power, it should be for Washington to engage it in constructive economic competition.
Nothing ought to be done or be seen to be done that could hint at a new superpower rivalry in the region. Old-fashioned zones of influence are to be discouraged, for if not, they could have a negative effect on countries like Bangladesh. That would be dreadful.