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.
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.
Officials in Washington talked of sanctions as targeted as the missiles deployed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the majority of activists in exile supported these claims.
Meanwhile, in Rangoon, government officials including Abel noted how Burma’s fledging garment industry had been devastated, forcing tens of thousands of woman out of employment and in many cases into prostitution, according to reports on the ground.
Privately, western aid workers talked of sharply rising HIV/AIDS rates in discos, massage parlors and brothels in Rangoon. Meanwhile Burma witnessed exceedingly low levels of government healthcare spending and only minimal financial aid from the international community, leading to a huge funding gap for medicine that persists – to a diminishing extent – to this day.
When the Global Fund – Burma’s main funder for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria treatment – pulled out of the country unilaterally, citing difficult operating conditions, aid workers losing money for their projects complained of behind-the-scenes pressure from the U.S.
Just over a year later, Washington led efforts to pass a U.N. Security Council statement on Burma “expressing deep concern … at the transnational risks posed by the situation in Myanmar” with HIV/AIDS the first example on the list. China and Russia issued a veto and the statement was shot down.
Economically, as the U.S. disengaged under Bush, Burma moved closer to China. But not only due to no-strings loans, grants, investment and trade.
In the late 1990s, former trade minister Abel started to make numerous trips to China – particularly Shenzhen – to study Beijing’s model for attracting industry. In doing so, Abel laid the foundations for closer economic ties between these two authoritarian neighbors, which Burma cashed in when times got hard for the junta in the mid-2000s.
“Reciprocity was not coming from the other side,” said Abel, referring to the U.S.
On November 15, 2010, two days after Suu Kyi came out of seven and a half years of detention, she told an interviewer that the U.S. and the international community at large to show greater flexibility on sanctions, while at the same time insisting that she had “never come across ordinary Burmese saying that sanctions are hurting them.”
If Bush’s policies were hotly debated when they seemed to yield few positive results, they seem particularly far-sighted in the current context of Burma’s recent reforms.
Myint Aung, a member of a former political prisoners group in Rangoon (not to be confused with Myint Aye, a prominent political prisoner released today), says this pressure has been particularly influential as Thein Sein has released a wave of political detainees since taking office in March last year, including at least 44 more today.
“The U.S. has been an influence because the government needs to get sanctions totally removed,” he said welcoming the latest releases while accusing the government of using these prisoners of conscience like “pawns.”
With an estimated 200-plus political prisoners still behind bars, fighting continuing in northern Kachin State and violence its worst in years in Western Rakhine, Obama and Thein Sein noted that there is still much work to be done.
“During our discussions we … reached agreement for the development of democracy in Burma and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards,” said Thein Sein after their meeting.
Whether Burma reaches that goal or not should become clear well before the end of Obama’s second term in office in January 2017. A crucial general election between Thein Sein’s party and Suu Kyi is due in exactly three years’ time.
“I don’t think anybody is under the illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” Obama said in Bangkok before heading to Burma amid criticisms he headed there too soon. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.