Aung San Suu Kyi’s caution is understandable and justified by her own experience of false dawns. Speaking at Barack Obama’s side as he visited Rangoon yesterday, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel prize winner warned of her country’s tentative transition to democracy that the most difficult time 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 and that we are working towards genuine success for our people,” she said.
Mr Obama’s six-hour visit yesterday, the first ever by a US president in office, and, importantly, made with the full support of the opposition, is an acknowledgment that progress is being made but only so far, he told President Thein Sein, “the first steps on what will be a long journey”. He warned the regime there was “no excuse for violence against innocent people”, specifically the Muslim Rohingya minority which have been facing a murderous campaign by the Burmese army.
But there have been democratic reforms: many political prisoners have been freed, broadly fair elections held, media curbs lifted. And the Thein Sein regime has rightly been rewarded by the international community with an easing of sanctions and promises of more to come if it maintains progress. Indeed, many US businesses are itching to get back in to tap the poverty-ridden country’s huge potential.
For Mr Obama the visit, one leg of three-country south east Asian tour, reflects his diplomatic “turn” to Asia, the refocusing of US attentions from Europe and the Middle East, and particularly its desire to create new poles of attraction to counterbalance China’s influence. Burma has a 2,000 km border with the latter. Much criticised for his 2009 inauguration speech in which he promised to open up contacts with pariah governments which showed they were “willing to unclench their fist”, Mr Obama can also find in Burma some vindication for his more conciliatory approach, one that has yet to bear fruit in Iran or North Korea.