Obama hails Burma's 'first steps' towards democracy on historic visit
US president Barack Obama walked barefoot through the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon yesterday, the first US president to visit Burma, a one-time pariah transformed from a brutal military dictatorship to a land facing into a democratic future.
The visit reflects the growing importance of southeast Asia as an engine for world economic growth, and also shows the increased competition with China for influence in the region.
Mr Obama is in the region to attend a summit in Cambodia of the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which includes key US allies such as Singapore and Indonesia.
During his visit, Mr Obama met President Thein Sein, a former general and leading figure in the junta who has pushed through reforms since March 2011, when he took office after an election which the opposition shunned.
Since then, it has introduced wide-ranging reforms, including freeing Mr Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I shared with President Thein Sein our belief that the process of reform that he is taking is one that will move this country forward. I recognise that this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey, but we think that a process of democratic reform and economic reform here in Myanmar . . . can lead to incredible development opportunities here,” Mr Obama said. He said US aid programmes to Burma would resume.
Mr Obama used Myanmar, the government name for the country, rather than Burma, the name used by the US and other countries who do not accept the legitimacy of the junta’s rule.
Mr Sein said the two had reached agreement “for the development of democracy in Myanmar and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards”.
Ms Suu Kyi has since joined parliament and encouraged the West to accept the reforms, which included freeing political prisoners and freedom of speech.
In June this year, she was presented with Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience award by U2 singer Bono at the “Electric Burma” concert in Dublin.
Mr Obama visited her at her lakeside home, where she was under house arrest for years.
While welcoming the reforms, Ms Suu Kyi is also sceptical, having fallen foul of the junta so many times. She warned that the most difficult time was “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. The visit to the region by Mr Obama is the most potent sign yet that Washington is serious about boosting its influence in the region, especially as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close.
As part of Washington’s “Pacific pivot”, the US is recalibrating its defence strategy to see greater focus on the Asia-Pacific, and has plans for shifting troops, ships and other assets to the region in coming years.
In diplomatic terms, it is keeping its options open, and is also working on building its defence relations and enhancing military-to-military co-operation with China, the region’s growing power.
By 2020 the US navy will adjust its forces from today’s roughly 50-50 split from the Pacific and Atlantic to about a 60-40 split in those oceans, including six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of US cruisers, destroyers, combat ships and submarines.
The US presence in the region has been relatively low-key since the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and since US troops scaled back their bases in the Philippines in the 1990s.
The US has rotated hundreds of marines into Australia, and it continues to have a major troop presence in South Korea and Japan. Currently, the US navy has about 285 ships, with roughly half of these assigned to each coast, but that total may decline a bit as some ships are retired in the coming years and may not be replaced.
Another reason Mr Obama’s presence in southeast Asia is of such importance is the manifold regional disputes focused on China and its neighbours. It is in dispute with Japan over a string of islands called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China.
China also has a raft of regional differences with various neighbours, centred on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims pretty much all of as its own. This has sparked tensions with the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. – (Additional reporting Reuters)