Immediately after his reelection, US President Barack Obama has headed off to Myanmar. This has come as a surprise to many, given the history of difficult relations between the two countries. Even when countries reform, a US presidential visit is rare and often only comes years after improved relations.
The Myanmar elections were held in November 2010, and the reform drive of the new government is just over a year old. At first it seemed as if the US government could never be satisfied. More criticism came, even after amnesties for political prisoners, reconciliation with the political opposition, and ceasefires with ethnic groups were agreed. But all this seems forgotten.
Across the international activist community there is dismay. They see it as too early a step, since Myanmar's government has not fully delivered on its promises yet. Their view is that a US presidential visit should be a reward for good behavior much further down the line.
But looking at Obama's visit from the perspective of a US global policing position is to misunderstand the functions of foreign policy entirely. Clearly one can interpret Obama's visit as a carrot to the former military leadership. But this rather simplistic view does not take into account the wider picture of US-Myanmar relations in a dynamic Asian context.
First of all, both Myanmar President Thein Sein and Myanmar opposition leader and member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi visited the US just a few months ago. Thein Sein spoke at the United Nations General Assembly, and Suu Kyi met with policymakers and supporters, as well as the exile community. The visits were both great successes, neither overshadowing the other. They were the first real steps in bringing the US and Myanmar closer to a dialogue and the US decided to drop a few more sanctions as a result.
On a much broader level, during his first term, Obama continuously has emphasized the US role in Asia.
The US wants to have a place at the table where key discussions are taking place. It also wants to remain in control, something becoming more challenging as Asian nations develop networks among themselves, and do not necessarily see the necessity of either US presence or influence.
When Myanmar was just a pariah state ruled by generals, cut off by sanctions from the Western world, and with little or no development potential, the US took little interest beyond a moralistic stance. Now that Myanmar is rapidly opening up, and Asian conglomerates are being joined by many Western companies, the US wants to be a key player in this development.
Myanmar's strategic location at the crossroad of South, East and Southeast Asia plays a big part in this as well. The US is aware that Myanmar's natural resources have already been a big incentive to Chinese, Russian, Korean and other Southeast Asian extractive firms. But today's more open playing field means a re-evaluation of economic ties, and what these can bring to the US.
The US wants to be a part of the new game, it wants to show Myanmar that it can develop alliances beyond its traditional ties in Asia and it wants Myanmar's development to be pro-US. Beyond trade, US involvement is likely to focus on aid in the education and health sectors. This plays well with the emerging Myanmar middle class, who have for many years sought greater engagement with the US and have been key in the reform process.
They have traditionally maintained their main links with Singapore, but today education in the US for their children is seen as a priority. Anyone who can possibly afford it is looking at sending their children westward, and the US is the destination of choice. It is this rising middle class that will be the largest propellant for improved US-Myanmar relations.
President Obama's visit does show support to the young Myanmar government that is implementing an ambitious political and economic reform program. This should be seen as a good thing, and as a sign of encouragement.
In no way does it mean that Myanmar has completed its reforms. The issues regarding ethnic peace and communal violence, especially in Kachin and Rakhine states remain. The Myanmar government knows it has a long and arduous way to go, but knowing that the world and the US are acknowledging the progress made must be a welcome sign.
The author is a South Asia expert with the Yangon-based Myanmar Egress, a nonprofit organization founded by Myanmar scholars and social workers. firstname.lastname@example.org