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Barack Obama talks with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the Association of South East Asian Nations Summit in Myanmar Barack Obama talks with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the Association of South East Asian Nations Summit in Myanmar MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
25 Dec
A visit by Barack Obama is enough to put any country in the spotlight, and so it has proved for Myanmar recently. Klaus Dodds asks whether the country has progressed as much as the headlines suggest

President Barack Obama had a tough November. The mid-term election results were not good for the Democratic Party, and 2016 presidential hopefuls such as Hillary Clinton must be hoping that things can turn around. The Republicans have gained control of the Senate and their superiority in the House of Representatives has increased. In a country with a constitution, which separates power and identifies a portfolio of responsibilities for the executive, legislature and judiciary, this really does make Obama’s final months in office as US president tricky.

One area that presidents tend to fall back on is foreign policy. But even here Obama’s options are limited. A Republican-controlled Congress might be rather more sympathetic to Israel than Arabic speaking states. Republicans on Capital Hill are not going to be so eager to promote rapprochement with Iran either. Congress is going to push Obama harder on the controversial Keystone pipeline project with Canada and call for firmer action against Syria and IS.

One area of foreign policy that Obama has been keen to promote is greater US involvement with Asia. In November, just after those crushing mid-term elections, Obama travelled to China, a country which the US is not only increasingly dependent upon economically, but one which it is also vying with for strategic geopolitical superiority. The two countries agreed to introduce some confidence building measures, especially in the area of tourist and business visas, and the two leaders spoke about matters of common concern. Obama then flew on to Myanmar but this grabbed rather less media attention given his talks in China.

Obama made presidential history when he first visited this military-controlled country in 2012. That visit was used to showcase a presidential determination to encourage greater engagement with Asia. But since then, concerns have mounted about the repressive nature of the regime and the threat to human rights – including those of the vulnerable Muslim minority community, the Rohingya. The trip was mired in controversy after it became apparent that a freelance journalist and former bodyguard to Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, was found murdered. It marked a new ‘low’ after earlier optimism that the military rulers might be changing in 2011, when a civilian government came to power. It is worth remembering that the military was quick to entrench its interests in the electoral system and 25 per cent of parliamentary representation is reserved for it. The Myanmar president and former general, Thein Sein, has found it ‘difficult’ to embrace political and human rights even if there have been some improvements, and scores of journalists and political activists have been imprisoned in the last three years.

Obama was urged by human rights groups and journalists inside Myanmar and around the world to boycott the country. Suu Kyi has warned the US president not to be too optimistic about Myanmar’s political transformation and to avoid the claims he made in 2012 that the country was on the cusp of a ‘remarkable journey’. Suu Kyi remains unable to run for presidential office and has endured house arrest for two decades.

The plight of the persecuted Rohingya is particularly troubling, as more than 100,000 have fled to neighbouring Thailand. Myanmar’s pledges to address their victimisation have been ignored. Critics would like to see the return of sanctions and urged Obama to raise this possibility at the Association of South East Asian Nations Summit. What makes the problem harder is that there is evidence that elements of the Myanmar military are profiting from trafficking Rohingya asylum seekers.

All of which means no one should expect any ‘remarkable journeys’ for the country any time soon.

Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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