RANGOON — At about 9:40am local time today, Air Force One flew over lush late-monsoon farmland and gold-leafed pagodas before touching down at the unlikeliest of destinations in the first visit to Burma by a sitting U.S. president.
During a whirlwind six-hour trip, Barack Obama met with both sides of Burma’s evaporating political divide – reformist President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – and expressed cautious optimism about Burma’s future during a speech at Rangoon University, a focal point for Burma’s independence leaders and later for many opponents of the five decades of military rule.
“I recognize that this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey,” the U.S. president said alongside his Burmese counterpart, Thein Sein, at the former parliament in Rangoon. “But we think that a process of democratic reform and economic reform in Myanmar … can lead to incredible development opportunities here.”
Part encouragement, part self-fulfilling prophecy as the U.S. rolls back sanctions, Obama’s delicate balancing act of caution and optimism not only points to the work Burma’s government still has to do, but also recognizes the time it has taken to come this far. In fact, a succession of U.S. presidents have, at least in part, helped Burma reach this point through a careful calibrated strategy of targeted sanctions and incentives.
“Two years ago, it was an unimaginable thing,” Tin Maung Than, the head of Rangoon-based policy think-tank Myanmar Egress, said of Obama’s visit.
As someone who has worked closely with Thein Sein’s government, he says that the current period of rapid reforms is a made-in-Burma process as reforms have been initiated at lightening pace in recent months.
The part that the U.S. has played – amid the still simmering arguments of carrots and sticks – remains a question of debate. So too the role played by Obama.
In the week leading up to the president’s visit, senior administration officials have been quick to attribute credit to the White House for Burma’s rapid, recent progress.