An important trip by Obama to boost U.S. influence
The Kansas City Star
Some human rights groups criticized President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar as too hasty. Democracy in that country is hardly assured, more than 200 political prisoners remain behind bars, ethnic and religious conflicts continue and the military remains dominant.
All true, yet the Obama administration’s much-vaunted diplomatic “pivot” to Asia comes at a critical time, given China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, illustrated in disputes over control of key islands in the South China Sea. Boosting American influence in the Asia-Pacific region makes excellent sense.
In the last few days, the diplomatic effort has ramped up considerably. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took off with full schedules for Australia, Cambodia and Thailand. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey headed for South Korea and Australia.
Obama himself flew to Thailand and then Cambodia, for a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The trip also included the first-ever visit by a U.S. president to Myanmar, formerly Burma.
In Yangon, the capital, Obama visited Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Thein Sein, whose country has opened rapidly in the last three years.
Suu Kyi, long held under house arrest, was freed — then won a seat in parliament in elections permitted in 2010. After Washington lifted sanctions, the country opened economically. Now many of Yangon’s hotels are full and its streets lined with billboards touting branded products with familiar names such as Panasonic or Rolex.
In the latest steps, announced last weekend, Myanmar said it would permit the Red Cross to conduct prison visits, review the cases of the remaining political prisoners and allow the U.N. commissioner for human rights to set up an office.
These are encouraging moves, but Washington should not assume full democracy will flower in Myanmar (many members of the opposition still prefer “Burma”) without a hitch.
Rebel insurgencies and ethnic conflicts remain a problem — as is the army, which has been accused of massacres, rapes and the dragooning of child soldiers. Incredibly, army troops still have immunity from all crimes in civilian courts and the military is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament and three cabinet posts.
To encourage further reforms, Obama pledged $170 million in aid. Assuming Congress approves the funds, Washington must closely watch events in Yangon to ensure progress continues.