Last week, US President Obama made what many term a historic trip to Myanmar. Fresh from presidential elections in his country, in which he won a second term, he surprised all when he went merrily off on an Asian tour. His first stop was Thailand, followed by a 6-hour stopover in Yangoon, Myanmar. He then went to Cambodia to attend a meeting of leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). But the world was bewildered because Obama's priorities seem to be misplaced.
First, there was a raging fiscal crisis in the US. Obama's presence at home seemed essential so that the sensitive negotiations ongoing with the opposition Republican legislators could be satisfactorily concluded. If the negotiations fail then, by January next, tax cuts mandated earlier would expire and the country would in effect fall off the "fiscal cliff" and plunge the US economy into chaos.
Obama also needed to stay back in Washington to closely monitor developments in Gaza and the hostilities that were escalating with Israel. Failure to stop the violence there could have serious repercussion in the entire Middle East. Finally, developments in the civil war in Syria were so horrific that he was needed to give the US administration a sense of the way forward.
We are told that Obama's visit at this critical juncture had to do with the new US game plan to invest more time in Asia. They call this policy "pivot to Asia." For too long US military and foreign policy establishment had squandered resources on the problems of the Middle East. In the meantime, the rising power and influence of China in the world was not attended to.
The US knows that China will soon impact the future course of events in the world. The US also knows that the economies of South Asia and South East Asia as well as those of Japan and Australia can help its economy. Europe is in no position now to give US the support it needs to face China. Hence, Obama without wasting any time after his reelection, moved to this part of the world. The visits to Myanmar and Cambodia were an important geo-strategic move. These countries with poor human rights record and tottering democracy are the "weak links" in the chain with which US wants to encircle China.
In Yangoon, Obama met President Thein Sien, the quasi-military backed leader of Myanmar. It was the first time that President Sein agreed to meet any visiting head of state outside Myanmar's capital Nayipadaw, quoting "logistical reasons." The US reciprocated the gesture when Obama referred to Burma as Myanmar during his formal talks. The US has not officially recognised the change of name of Burma to Myanmar as this change was done by a military junta.
The high points in Obama's visit were his meeting with Nobel Laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi and his address in Yangoon University before parliamentarians, retired generals, students, faculty and eminent persons. Both these events had great symbolic value. But they did not seem to have any substantive impact on Myanmar's policy makers.
By highlighting the fact that all permanent inhabitants of Myanmar were citizens of one country, Obama tried to introduce the concept of citizenship as a defining term that encompassed even the unfortunate Muslim Rohingyas who are a part of Myanmar's identity. But this was not formally noted by the Myanmarese authorities. Nor by Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Myanmar is a resource rich country and geographically within the cusp of China. On both counts, the US is interested in being friendly with the present Myanmar government. But commentators feel that such political embrace of the quasi- military government by US is premature. The country has a long way to travel on the road to democracy. It still has institutions in place which obstruct free speech, free press, an independent judiciary and a parliament where a quarter or more of the members are not elected but nominated from the military. There are still several insurgencies led by minority communities against the central government and the majority Burman community. The recent wanton killing of Muslim Rohingyas, who have been inhabitants of Myanmar for generations, is also a case in point.
Obama's visit to Myanmar may encourage the extremist elements there, both in the government and outside, to continue their intransigent behaviour. Besides the Rohingyas, other persecuted communities could still bear the burden of discrimination and denial of their legitimate rights. The economic sanctions that the US government had imposed earlier to discipline the military leadership were lifted unilaterally just before Obama's visit. So what can prevent Myanmar from continuing its past policies?
But there is a chance that good sense could prevail and the visit could after all be a turning point for Myanmar. It could quietly introduce political reforms and amend its past ways. This would be a welcome change not only for Myanmar but also for the region and its neighbours. History would record it as Obama's legacy. He would be remembered as the world leader who brought about this seminal change. But the jury is still out and the verdict is yet to roll in.
We in Bangladesh look on this visit with a wary eye. No one would be happier if Myanmar traveled quickly on the long road to genuine democracy. But no one would be more disappointed if Myanmar uses this visit as a signal that the world has acknowledged its progress and it can rest on its laurels. We think that Obama's visit may have taken place too soon. The US may have jumped the gun too fast. There were good reasons for Obama to have been more circumspect. Let us all hope posterity will not have any regrets.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary affairs.