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The recent announcement that President Obama will be visiting Burma in a few days is the most startling indicator of how quickly relations have thawed between the two countries.
Obama is set to visit Burma November 18-19 (the first incumbent U.S. President to do so) as part of a reaching out of the Obama Administration to the reformist regime. "Washington has invited Myanmar to observe its 'Cobra Gold' military exercise in Thailand early next year, announced an expansion of aid and whittling away of economic sanctions," reports the Los Angeles Times. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preceded Obama with a trip to Burma last winter.
Thein Sein, an ex-general who became Burma's president last year, is being mentioned in the same breath as a more famous reformer.
"He is sometimes called the Mikhail Gorbachev of Myanmar [the name the junta gave the country], a once-loyal apparatchik of one of the world's most brutal military dictatorships who is chipping away at some of its worst legacies -- freeing political prisoners, partially unshackling the press and allowing the long-persecuted opposition to run for election," wrote the New York Times earlier this year.
The question here is how genuine are Sein's attempts, and here we get into tricky territory.
"We think [Obama's] visit is premature," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told the Los Angeles Times. "What is actually the rush?"
At the same time, Human Rights Watch acknowledges on its website that "Myanmar under President Thein Sein's government has made some important strides in changing its previously appalling performance on human rights," even as it lists the problems that remain.
There are hundreds of political prisoners in jail, though hundreds others have been released. The regime is continuing its repression of ethnic minorities such as the Kachins. And, in the most infamous recent episode, there's been official apathy as scores of the country's Rohingya Muslims have been killed and tens of thousands made homeless by the dominant Buddhist majority.
There has been real progress toward democratization in the country, though. Aung San Suu Kyi, the global icon of nonviolent resistance, has been allowed to enter Parliament along with forty-plus fellow members of her party. She was also permitted recently to make historic visits to Europe and the United States. Suu Kyi was kept in custody by the regime for fifteen long years, and so the latitude being given to her is almost unbelievable.
Despite the positive changes, let's not kid ourselves. Much of U.S. policy in Asia is based on efforts to "contain" China.
"In November 2011, President Obama stood before the Australian Parliament and issued a veiled challenge to China's ambitions in Asia: 'As a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future,'" the New York Times reported last Sunday. "A year later, the details of his pledge -- along with a nascent American military buildup in the Pacific -- are emerging."
Burma, which has long been very cozy with the Chinese regime, is part of that strategy of containment. The Obama Administration hopes to reorient it toward the West.
Obama's visit "fits with its so-called pivot strategy aimed at checking China's influence by bolstering military and political ties with democracies on its periphery," reports the Los Angeles Times.
The only problem is that Burma is not a democracy.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Kerry Would Continue Status Quo as Secretary of State."
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