The “enormously significant” visit to Rangoon, a senior State Department told reporters last week, will represent what “clearly stacks up as a major early success of the Obama administration,” the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial that coincided with Obama’s arrival in Rangoon.
Aung Din, the head of U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington D.C.-based lobby group, notes that the reality of Burma’s coming in from the cold is much more complex and dates back to long before Obama arrived at the White House.
“President Bush responded to the situation on the ground when the human rights situation was terrible,” he said. “At the time, the Burmese government didn’t want to talk to America.”
During Bush’s tenure – eight years that were dominated by a focus on the Middle East and talk of the “Axis of Evil” – the U.S only reached out to Burma once in a meaningful way, says Aung Din, referring to the time that then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Eric John met with junta officials in Beijing to ask for the release of Suu Kui in June 2007. Less than a year ahead of a decisive referendum on Burma’s new, carefully manufactured constitution, the military regime flatly refused Washington’s request for the release of the Nobel laureate.
Shortly after these rare U.S.-Burma talks, the junta violently put down monk-led democracy protests prompting stricter sanctions from the Bush administration during the home stretch of its tenure. But it was the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act Bush signed on July 28, 2003, which set the tone for U.S. policy that, until recently, banned Burmese imports among other restrictions, while setting the junta on a course that would push it closer to Beijing and further from Washington.
David Abel, Burma’s former trade minister who by this time had moved into the prime minister’s office as an economic advisor and was close to retiring, says it was devastating for Burma’s economy.
“The whole country was unhappy, not just the government,” Abel said by telephone from his home in Rangoon.
It was during this period that the impact of U.S. sanctions – the tools U.S. officials say helped create the leverage for the ongoing change – became hotly disputed.