The President Goes To Myanmar

November 20, 2012Benny Witkovsky
President Obama made history this week, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit both Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia. The President’s itinerary this week includes: a meeting with the recently elected President of Myanmar as well as the opposition leader, democratic activist Aung San Suu Ki; an audience with the King of Thailand; and an economic summit meeting in Cambodia. (All of this before President Obama makes it home on Thursday to pardon a turkey and celebrate Thanksgiving). The East Asia trip can be seen as part of a broader move by President Obama to reorient U.S. foreign policy and strategy toward the Asia Pacific region.

The visit to Myanmar comes in the wake of an easing of the military dictatorship that has ruled that nation since 1962 over the past 18months. Speaking at a university in Yangon (Myanmar’s capital) President Obama reflected, “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear.  I said, in my inauguration address, ‘We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’  And over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip…” He continued by discussing the major shifts in Myanmar’s policy, release of political prisoners and the democratization that has marked the last year in Myanmar and concluded, “So today, I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.”

However, not everyone has welcomed President Obama’s visit to Myanmar; many human rights organizations have denounced the visit as too soon. David Scott Matheson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “[Obama’s] going for all the right reasons but at the wrong time,” arguing that too much engagement too soon could simply further the power of the military regime rather than challenge it, “There is a fine line between encouraging the reform process and inadvertently emboldening further bad behavior by extant forces within Myanmar's military-parliamentary complex that have benefited from the optimistic engagement of the US, European Union and other governments.”

One issue that is particularly important to the RAC is the question of religious freedom in Myanmar. According to the State Department, the government of Myanmar only presented a, “limited degree of respect for religious freedom.” The majority of people in Myanmar practice Theravada Buddhism and the regime in Myanmar has actively supported and promoted this practice while, the State Department reports, religious minorities were routinely monitored, had restricted freedom of expression and assembly and experienced prejudicial treatment by the government. While human rights broadly speaking have been key components of the messaging around the President’s trip, religious freedom has remained largely un-discussed.

While President Obama’s decision to go to Myanmar is a bold move, and one that may contain a seed for further democratization and for the advancement of human rights, it is too soon to tell just what the implications might be.

Image courtesy of Carolyn Kaster/ Associated Press

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