Nov 16, 2012

Myanmar - Questions on president Obama’s historical visit to Myanmar

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Western countries including US posed sanctions against Myanmar and tried to isolate the country. However hard they tried, Myanmar was never freed from the grip of dictatorship for over 20 years. It was Obama who used a different approach to Myanmar.

A few years ago, Myanmar started to change toward democracy. A civilian government has come to power after the controversial 2010 election. Since then Myanmar has experienced changes in politics and the US have lifted sanctions not long ago. Although the country is still far from reaching the ultimate goal, it can be regarded as a political achievement for the Obama administration during his first term.

Since president Obama has been reelected as the president of the United States, it can be expected that he will continue what he started. It is interesting to see if there is going to be any changes. Right now, the president is planning to visit Myanmar as a part of his Asean visit. He will become the first US president to visit the once authoritarian country in more than half a century.

However, the question why he is coming to Myanmar remains. The Obama administration is trying to have good relations with Myanmar which has recently moved away from its long-time patron, China. At the same time, the Thein Sein government is rebuilding its reputation in the international community with the help of the United States. The second term of Obama can further cement that relationship.

During his visit, it is hoped that Obama will emphasise the democratic reforms in the country. It must be addressed that the 2015 election be transparent and fair. The need of revising the constitution should not be neglected. He also needs to express concern on ethnicities. The Rakhine strife must be discussed.

Moreover, revising the constitution is required to ensure long-lasting peace with different ethnic militias. In fact, the constitution itself is barring the democratic faiths and federal ideas.

President Thein Sein mentioned Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi can be president of the Union of Myanmar during his visit to the US but he again said electing her as president requires revising the constitution and depends on other parliamentarians. It may show that the Obama administration cannot trust the words of the Thein Sein government.

How the US president view Myanmar is important. In fact, the US wants a ground to countercheck the influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region. During his Asean tour, Obama will become the first president to visit Cambodia, ruled by a semi-dictator. It seemed that the Obama administration is willing to work with ruling regimes and reward them for their reforms. Forgetting past sins is required for this process.

Recognising an unpopular regime, however, is not a democratic solution.

What are the objectives for Myanmar? If the administration is interested only in balancing China’s power and fails to promote the democratic process, it will not be able to maintain a good image among the Myanmar public. Moreover, with the prospect of civil war looming, US companies will be risking their fortunes by investing in Myanmar.

Obama’s visit to Myanmar is a good omen for Myanmar’s democracy. However, if the intention is only to control China’s power, it will not be welcomed. Backing an authoritarian regime to check the rival (like establishing surrogate states during the cold war) will not be accepted.

If Obama is coming to quicken democratisation, it is appreciated. However, it is still too early if the president is coming to praise what has been achieved so far by the Thein Sein administration.

The norms for independent media, which can guarantee democracy, have not been defined yet. The Act of Publication (1962) is still haunting the journalists. Newspapers, radio and television channels, which are mainstream media, are still controlled by the government or its cronies. Independent journalists have to thrive amidst weekly journalism. The hopes of ethnic groups, such as peace and equality, and poverty levels remain just as before the democratic reforms. The military and ruling party is quiet to voice amendments to the 2008 constitution that allows the return to status quo.

Is Obama planning this historic visit to Myanmar just to praise democratic icon Aung San Suu Ky and the achievements of the current government?

What will be done about forming independent media, ensuring equality and peace to the ethnic minorities and promising a democratic government through the 2015 elections?

There are questions to be asked…

Zwell Waian

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