In keeping with his promise to pivot to the region, President Obama conducted a tri-country tour through Southeast Asia earlier this week, his first trip abroad since winning re-election. The president’s journey began in Thailand, then on to Burma, and concluded in Cambodia. The choice of this region and these countries for a presidential visit was significant, but perhaps most important was the decision to visit Burma.
President Obama’s trip to Burma has been greeted with mixed reviews internationally. Those familiar with Burma’s history will likely recall the harsh military rule that had gripped the country for 50 years, the violent suppression of student and civil protests, and perhaps most famously the harrowing political career of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Due to this list of egregious offenses, human rights activists in particular are upset by the president’s decision to come here—and they may be right—but for every argument posed against this visit, there are many reasons to support it.
This trip to Southeast Asia was jam-packed with meetings, conferences, and appearances, so not much time was allocated to any one place; in Burma, the president was only able to stay for six hours. Despite his restrictive schedule, there were a few events that highlighted the purpose of the time spent here. Six for six, if you will.
1. Making peaceful connections: An unscheduled visit to Shwedagon Temple
Although not originally on his packed schedule, President Obama and his staff decided to make their first stop the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. This pagoda ranks as the most important in all of Burma, and has been a historic location for pro-democracy protests as late as 2007. A visit here serves as an example of President Obama’s support of Burma’s democracy movement, and its efforts for peace inside the country and out.
2. Meeting an icon: Speaking with Aung San Suu Kyi
Nobel Prize winner and elected official Aung San Suu Kyi greeted the president shortly after his arrival in Rangoon. She is viewed by many as the most outspoken and steadfast in the Burmese democracy movement. Having lived under house arrest for nearly 20 years under the military junta, and now freed to serve her cause, it was Suu Kyi’s urgings that convinced the White House that Burma was on the road to recovery.
3. The key to reform: President Thein Sein
Shortly before meeting Suu Kyi, Obama visited with Burmese President Thein Sein at the Rangoon Parliament building. President Sein is seen as a hero for his economic reforms and his efforts to free hundreds of political prisoners.
4. A symbol of dissent: Rangoon University
In what may have appeared an unusual venue for a presidential speech, Obama chose to speak at Rangoon University. The school once housed a vibrant academic community, but a series of student protests and the military suppression that followed forced the institution out of practice; classes have not been actively held there since the 1990s. Speaking here indicated yet another nod to the success of popular democracy in the country.
5. Work yet to be done: The struggles of the Rohingya population
For all the progress, one glaring example of the deficiency of human rights in the country is the Rohingya Muslim minority. The Human Rights Watch tells us that hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and many thousands displaced by ethnic violence. Obama met with an advocate for the minority and sent the message to the ruling government that this situation is an example of progress yet to occur.
6. The racket downstairs: A word on China
Of course, no visit to Asia would be complete without an acknowledgement of the Rise of China. Many Burmese feel that China is taking advantage of their country’s wealth and natural resources, providing the US an opportunity to offer support that would also help to check China’s power in the region.
Controversial yet critical, President Obama’s tour of Southeast Asia, and of Burma in particular, provide a clear idea of things yet to come. The growth of democracy in a previously freedom-starved region is indicative of positive changes that will ultimately benefit its peoples. As democracy has grown, our country’s relationship throughout the region has grown correspondingly. A visit by the American president gives the people of Burma and Southeast Asia new hope for change, and should serve as a signal to the rest of the world the feats of progress that have already been accomplished.
Image source: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe