Obama’s First Post-Election Trip Denotes A Change in Demeanor for US-Burma Relations

Written by Ivan Bakin, Hopeprint International Relations Intern

US President Barack Obama’s three nation Asian tour was marked by a new vision for southeast Asia. Obama’s penultimate stop was Rangoon, Burma. The trip to Burma was the first a sitting US President had ever done. President Obama finished his Asian trip with a stop in Cambodia.

President Barack Obama’s six hour trip to Burma showed a new wave of US relations with the former pariah state. Starting with a coup in 1962, Burma has been under military rule of some kind, either through military dictatorship, a junta, or now in the fledgling “democracy” [1]. In 2010, the Burmese military junta approved a new constitution which reestablished a parliament, and began the progress towards a democratic state. Burmese President Thein Sein’s reforms have included releasing Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, other political prisoners, allowing greater freedoms for civil society, liberalizing the economy, and opening up parliament races to multiple parties [2]. In his six hours on the ground, Obama limited his stay to Rangoon and met with President Thein Sein, and Burma’s greatest democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Obama also gave a televised speech at Rangoon University [3].

Although Suu Kyi herself welcomed the visit, she also warned of rejoicing in false promises, “the most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success [4].” Though Thein Sein has introduced political reforms, the military backed party has reserved 25% of the parliament, the military budget is outside of the parliament’s purview, and the military has unilateral power to dissolve parliament [5]. Furthermore, the government has continued to conduct military operations of suppression against ethnic minorities and represses the Rohingya Muslim population of western Burma [6]. The Rohingya people had there citizenship revoked by the military junta in 1982. Many have been forced from their homes and subjected to rape, arson, violent attacks, and murder [7]. As part of the government’s campaign against them, President Thein Sein asked the United Nations to arrange for 800,000 Rohingya to be placed in refugee camps or removed entirely from Burma [8].

Many have criticized the timing of Obama’s trip to Burma. Obama defended his trip to Burma by framing it, not as an endorsement of the government, but as an acknowledgment of the political reform process under way in the country [9]. Obama himself recognized the slow progress of democratic reform stating, “I do not think anybody is under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they are where they need to be. On the other hand if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we would be waiting an awful long time [10].” However, under the Obama administration support of the Burmese government has been swift and on a multitude of levels. Seeking to capitalize on the liberalization of the economy the president announced £107 million in aid to the country, in addition to already removing US imposed sanctions, and installing the first US ambassador in Rangoon in more than 20 years [11,12]. US companies have begun flooding into Burma due to government actions and the US removal of sanctions. Some of these efforts have lead to good for the Burmese population such as increased tourism, rising incomes, and introduction of non-cash based economic systems, which promote foreign tourism [13].

Although Obama spoke in the symbolically significant Rangoon University, addressing subjects such as the Rohingya population and increasing civil society’s freedoms and capacity, he also used the previously taboo “Myanmar”. The US had not accepted the name Myanmar, in favor of Burma, because of its imposition by the military junta that had conducted human rights abuses [14]. The effects of Obama’s trip have been so far positive. Key political activists seem to have re-energized the population, and Burma has begun transitioning from pariah state to global partner. The Burmese government stated it was open to international inspection of its territory to verify there is no covert nuclear program [15]. What remains to be seen are the consequences of opening up relations with “Myanmar,” and the movement of a government which can claim tacit approval of the Western states.

The White House explicitly stated that trip to Cambodia by Obama was exclusively to attend the East Asian Summit, an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) led conference of leaders from countries in East Asia and the region.



1 CIA. “Burma.” Central Intelligence Agency. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos//bm.html (accessed November 25, 2012).

2 Mathieson, David Scott. “A bridge too far for Obama, crossed too early, in Myanmar | Human Rights Watch.” Human Rights Watch | Defending Human   Rights Worldwide. http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/11/18/bridge-too-far-obama-crossed-too-early-myanmar (accessed November 26, 2012).

3 Voice of America. “Obama Arrives in Burma, Says Trip Not Endorsement of Government.” Voice of America. blogs.voanews.com/breaking-news/2012/11/18/obama-arrives-in-burma-says-trip-not-endorsement-of-government/ (accessed November 25, 2012).

4 Eimer, David. “Obama lauds Burma’s ‘remarkable journey’ – Telegraph.” Telegraph.co.uk http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/burmamyanmar/9688835/Obama-lauds-Burmas-remarkable-journey.html (accessed November 26, 2012).

5 Mathieson. “Obama in Myanmar” Human Rights Watch

6 US Department of State. “Burma.” U.S. Department of State. http://www.state.gov/p/eap/ci/bm/ (accessed November 25, 2012).

7 Ward, Olivia. “Burma’s Rohingya minority get attention from Obama’s visit – thestar.com.” thestar.com. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1290689–burma-s-rohingya-minority-get-attention-from-obama-s-visit (accessed November 25, 2012).

8 “Statements.” US Campaign for Burma. http://uscampaignforburma.org/statements.html (accessed November 25, 2012).

9 “President Obama tells the people of Burma America ‘is with you’ on historic trip | Fox News.” Fox News http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/11/19/president-obama-says-aims-to-extend-hand-friendship-on-landmark-visit-to-burma/ (accessed November 25, 2012).

10 Voice of Americ. “Obama Arrives in Burma.” Voice of America

11 Eimer. “Obama lauds Burma’s ‘remarkable journey.’” Telegraph

12 Mathieson. “Obama in Myanmar.” Human Rights Watch

13 MacLeod, Calum. “Amid wave of change, Burmese relish new freedoms.” USA TODAY. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2012/11/24/burma-reform-freedom/1722637/ (accessed November 25, 2012).

14 Eimer. “Obama lauds Burma’s ‘remarkable journey.’” Telegraph

15Borger, Julian. “Burma to open up for nuclear inspection.” Sydney Morning Herald. smh.com.au. http://www.smh.com.au/world/burma-to-open-up-for-nuclear-inspection-20121122-29sr5.html (accessed November 25, 2012).


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