Obama trip to Myanmar is a long-term move

opinion November 18, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

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US wants to bring country in from the cold, so it curbs ties with Pyongyang, improves rights


Even though the re-elected US President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar this week will be brief, it will have a series of significant outcomes for Myanmar and the region. Make no mistake, his visit is part of a long-term strategic plan by US decision-makers, who view the once most condemned nation in the world as a key future ally.
US knows this is the best time to approach Myanmar because the Thein Sein government has demonstrated its willingness to engage with the West, especially the US. The latest supposed amnesty for political prisoners is part of US demands in return for a high-profile visit by Obama. After all, Myanmar has been delivering key requests by the US and other Western countries including EU such as widen democratic space, working on national reconciliation, promoting freedom for the media and freedom of assembly, as well as international access to prisoners and other facilities.
The US wants to ensure that Myanmar stays on the reform path so the country is free to make independent decisions. For the past years, Nay Pyi Daw has indicated it wants to distance itself from China, the main provider of aid and other forms of assistance for several decades. Washington immediately jumped in and has been able to take advantage of the timely situation and turned the situation around in the past two years. With Obama’s visit, the future of Myanmar will be tied, more or less, to the global strategic outlook designed by the US. The invitation for Myanmar to be an observer at next year’s Cobra Gold military exercise was more than a symbolic gesture. The annual exercise between Thailand and the US has now become a new platform to forge closer military ties for allies and friends of the US. This wide network of security cooperation comes at a time when China is rising meteorically in both economic and political fields. For the first time, the US has established ties with all countries located in China’s southern flank, a weak security area for the US for the six decades since the end of World War II. China is now surrounded by countries friendly or accessible to the US both on the mainland and archipelagic countries in South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.
In addition, the US also has long seen future threats from the close ties between Myanmar and North Korea. In the past few years, since the “interception” of a North Korean ship thought to have broken UN resolutions, Washington has pressed Nay Pyi Daw hard to sever ties with Pyongyang and end cooperation in nuclear technology. Obama has been spearheading a push for global non-proliferation. Thailand will this week sign on to the Proliferation Security Initiative during his visit this weekend.
Beyond these two important objectives, Obama will also raise violations of human rights related to the plight of Rohingyas. He is expected to call the Thein Sein government to end differences and allow them to be part of Burmese society. He will also encourage the government to try to reconcile with minorities that are still on the fringe and some fighting against government security forces, as in Kachin, Karen and Shan states.
It is clear that Obama is focusing on making his political legacy in this part of the world. It comes at a time when the US faces domestic problems related to the national debt crisis. Therefore, strengthening the US presence along with burden-sharing with countries in the region is the way to go.