Burmese mirage for Obama?

Celebrating the move from military rule to civilian rule may be premature.

Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar election 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj )
Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar election 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj )
This week, President Obama made a historic visit to the South-East Asian country of Burma to celebrate its recent return to civilian rule.  After half a century of military rule, a partially-civilian government now presides over the country, but much work still remains to be done.  Some human rights groups have even gone so far as to criticize Obama for visiting Rangoon too soon, rewarding words more than deeds.
President Thein Sein is overseeing the start of a long and painful transition towards civil rights and a functioning democracy.  Joined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama came to Burma to encourage further progress by acknowledging the small, but important steps, that have been taken to date.  The US is normalizing relations with the small impoverished country as an incentive to keep reform moving forward.  Aid money will flow to the extent that Rangoon remains committed to human rights, including the release of political prisons and the ending of censorship.
No visit by a Western leader would be complete without a special day trip to see internationally-renown democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her famous lakeside home.  After 15 years of house arrest, Suu Kyi has clearly demonstrated her personal commitment to the democratization of her country, but she remains cautious in her appraisal of the situation.  Now taking her seat as an elected representative in the Burmese parliament, Suu Kyi is supportive of the current efforts at liberalization and the transition away from heavy-handed military rule.  She had personally requested that Obama make the visit when she visited him in Washington DC several weeks ago.  However, Suu Kyi still made a point of warning Obama not to be “lured by a mirage of success,” and instead to remain focused on ensuring that democratic reform is real, widespread and lasting.
Unfortunately, as some progress has been made in the capital city, ethnic violence has flared up elsewhere in Burma.  In recent weeks, violence broke out in the province of Rakhine between Buddhists and the Rohingya, who are Muslim and considered stateless.
The phrase “mobs of angry Buddhists” may be an uncommon one, but appears to accurately describe the sectarian attacks that occurred in October.
Obama made sure to plead for national reconciliation and an end to these bloody attacks, although Muslim groups still condemned his visit as premature.  A leading human rights group has alleged that Burmese security forces sided with the Buddhists against the Rohingya.  The Organization of Islamic Co-operation has called the attacks in Rakhine “genocide.”
Hopefully, having gained the public relations benefits from Obama visit, Burma’s elite will not be tempted to backslide and return to its pattern of repression that has held sway in recent decades.  The first visit to a country by a serving US president is bound to be a newsworthy affair.  Insisting that his visit shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of the current government, Obama stressed the importance of America “getting its hands dirty” in order to foster reform and encourage the transition towards democracy.
Even though incomplete and easily reversible, the progress in Burma over the last two years is considerable.  The military junta that ruled Burma was notoriously brutal, but since the generals handed power over to Thein Sein’s civilian government, the US, Japan and the European Union have all begun dropping their sanctions.  Until recently, only North Korea indulged in a level of isolation greater than that of Burma.  The isolation, however, came at a tremendous cost.  While much of Asia has benefit from decades of compounding economic growth, Burma still sits in largely the same poverty that it was in when the general’s first took power.
Upon her release, Suu Kyi made the telling remark that Rangoon seemed just as she remembered it.  Imagine someone saying the same thing of the capital cities of other Asian tiger economies!
With the transition towards democracy, the doors are now opening for businessmen to come and see what opportunities are on offer in this country rich in precious metals, jewels, oil and gas.  Major international brands are still absent in a country that operates exclusively on cash.  Cell phones, computers and the internet are rare luxuries in Burma.  Notably, even subsistence farmers in Africa have access to more advanced communication and money transfer technology than the Burmese.
Burma must develop government institutions that are robust enough to respect individual human rights and protect minority communities, otherwise progress towards a functioning democracy will be transient and illusory.  Sectarian violence has the potential to undo the real progress that has been made so far, since many of the legal mechanisms by which the military junta exercised power are still in place.
Many Burmese hope that in the elections scheduled in 2015, the military will permit a full transfer of power to Suu Kyi in order to demonstrate the real and tangible success of the democratic process.  The lingering role of the military in the sputtering Burmese economy will be a longer-term challenge, although political liberalization may assist in the overall development of the country.
Burma’s neighbors in South-East Asia clearly demonstrate the possibilities that are tantalizingly within reach.  Hopefully, the same generals who have so fiercely clung to their power now realize that a better future lies ahead in a new and optimistic direction.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.