Obama to Burma: A “Remarkable Journey”
Posted by Evan Osnos
November 19, 2012
The clearest measure of the symbolic significance of President Obama’s visit to Burma on Monday came not in his surprising speech, or in the sight of him towering over the Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. It came from a less likely source: the Chinese Propaganda Department.
In the past year, as Burmese leaders released wave after wave of political prisoners, ended its censorship of the press, and welcomed former dissidents into government, China and its fellow-autocrats, have looked on with bewilderment and no small degree of concern that the infection of openness could spread beyond Burma’s borders. So in an internal notice to national media last week, China’s Orwellian agency, which oversees the world’s largest censorship apparatus, made clear just how it feels about witnessing an American President welcomed by once-hostile generals in Burma, a nation that was, just two years ago, one of China’s most avid partners in authoritarianism: “Downplay Obama’s visit,” the Chinese Propaganda Department ordered
In becoming the first American President to set foot in Burma—he stayed just six hours, then headed to Cambodia, also a first for a POTUS—Obama was taking a series of symbolic steps. Most broadly, he was signalling his confidence in Burma’s halting, maddening, imperfect but utterly astonishing transformation. During my visits to Burma this year for an article about its tentative changes (“The Burmese Spring
”), I tried to answer the question that was on the minds of anyone who cares about authoritarianism: Was this for real? Had one of the world’s most dedicated dictatorships actually decided to give up a measure of its control in return for a seat at the table of international society?
Obama—who began his Administration with a pledge to dictators around the world that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”—has found that Burma decided to take him up on the offer, and now he has decided to hold up his end of the bargain, even if many remain skeptical. He even did the government the favor
of using its preferred name for the country, Myanmar, though America still officially calls it Burma. For many, part of the answer is now clear. Nick Kristof wrote
today, “I used to argue against Burma sanctions, saying they would hurt the public but not bring change. I was flat wrong.”
But in the months since the Administration embarked on its efforts to encourage Burma’s opening up—notably, by rewarding it for allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to take her seat in Parliament—the path to redemption has proved to be perilous because of sectarian violence, which is hardly less fraught for Burma’s political future than if the reformers had turned out to be frauds. Ethnic violence in Rakhine state has displaced more than a hundred and ten thousand people and killed at least a hundred and sixty, while Burmese security forces have failed to protect minorities. The violence has deepened fears that Burma’s leaders are more interested in trade, investment, and an end to sanctions than they are in ethnic pluralism. Human Rights Watch said
that Obama’s trip “risks providing an undeserved seal of approval to the military-dominated government.” On one of my visits to Burma’s embattled ethnic borderlands earlier this year, a farmer in a refugee camp told me that political reform will not bring an end to the bloodshed. “The new government talks about peace, but if it doesn’t give us our rights, then the war will take a long time,” he said. He was right.
In his speech today, Obama hailed
Burma’s “remarkable journey” but went on record with his reservations about the threat that ethnic violence poses to the country’s future. “National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country’s future, it is necessary to stop the incitement and to stop violence,” he said.
For all the fears of what lies ahead for Burma, it is impossible not to marvel at the sheer improbability of all that has happened already: that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would be sitting in the open air in Rangoon, in the garden of the home where Aung San Suu Kyi once endured years of house arrest. If the Administration has been aggressive—hasty, some charge—in pushing for signs of progress in Burma, it is perhaps because moments of such stark political change are exceedingly rare, and they are desperate to seize it.
Burma has always carried more symbolic power than its obscure profile suggests. Orwell knew that, and it seems Obama does, too. Burma’s becoming, he said today, “a test of whether a country can transition to a better place.”