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       Volume 11 |Issue 46| November 23, 2012 |


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Burmese Days


Burma it had to be.

After getting re-elected to the US presidency, Barrack Obama has chosen three Asian countries for his first trip abroad. The choice of Asia should not raise an eyebrow for there has been a strategic shift in the US military presence across the world, in line with which, of late, the US has claimed itself a Pacific nation.

Roughly translated into layman's language, it means the country wants to park some of its fleets and other military logistics in the region and it wishes to have a strong foothold in the Pacific to counter growing Chinese military and economic muscle.

Thailand, as it did during the Cold War, is going to play an important role in this paradigm shift, which explains why the Southeast Asian nation has been blessed with Obama's first footstep abroad.

The choice of Burma, a hermit kingdom still run by a demonic leadership, might come shocking to many. And there are reasons for it. For over half a century, Burma, rich in mineral resources, was run by a group of military dictators who brutally suppressed any dissenting voice; hundreds were butchered during the 8888 student movement; heaps of bodies were dumped in mass graves. Until very recently, Burma did not have a free press to speak of; freedom of speech is a far cry here; there is an official ban on the gathering of more than a certain number of people. It has the unenviable record of keeping Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, an elected representative and leader of the majority party in 1990 general elections, under house arrest for 15 to 21 years.

Burma is also a dungeon for ethnic minorities. Ethnic Rohingyas have been denied citizenship because of their skin colour; they have to take permission to leave their settlements, need a permit to get married and have children, and are regularly sent to forced-labour camps. As many as 15 nationalities had to take up arms to fight for their freedom at one point of other in Burmese history.

Burma has had a highly secretive nuclear programme and after the surrender of Shan warlord Khun Sa in January 1996, according to newspaper reports, it has acquired Sa's armoury of chemical weapons. In fact, for a long time Burma has been an ideal candidate for US fighter jets to go and sprinkle cluster bombs.

But it never happened. Instead the successive US governments encouraged "meaningful engagements" with the Burmese regime, even when Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, was killing and raping thousands in its own country. The US feared that putting pressure on Burma might play into the hands of China, which holds a huge sway over the Burmese leadership. The Burmese junta was heavily dependent on China to keep the clogs of the country's fledgling economy moving. Burma has remained poor, so have its starving millions; but Burma-China relationship has flourished and has been mutually beneficial for both the countries' ruling elite. So much so that some Burmese Generals have villas in China, not to mention the volume of trade–legal and illegal–that Burma has with its big northern neighbour. To make matters even ominous for the US, Burma is a strategically important piece in the String of Pearl, Chinese sea lines of communication that extends from mainland China to Port Sudan.

In the last few years, China has fallen out of grace though, and Burma, to revive its impoverished economy, is trying to lure foreign investment. Some Japanese and Asean investors have already arrived at Naypyidaw, and the US, it seems, does not want to lag behind. Be that as it may, the US President, like his predecessors, should have waited a couple of years to see if Burma improves on its human rights, to see if it gives citizenships to 800,000 ethnic Rohingyas some of whom live in exile in refugee camps in south-eastern Bangladesh. It is a shame that besides giving a mere lip service, Obama's visit does not properly address the Rohingya issue. To make matters worse, the US President's six-hour-long stay in Rangoon gives legitimacy to a regime which looked the other way when women and children were murdered by fanatic Rakhine mobs in Arakan.

Through his visit Obama sends a deplorably wrong signal–that hundreds of Rohingyas have been murdered and 10,000 have been made homeless only a few days ago by the hands he shook with in Naypyidaw does not matter to Barrack Obama.

Besides its personal value–Obama's grandfather worked as a cook in Burma during British occupation–his sojourn in Rangoon might not be able to mitigate the sufferings of Rohingyas – and the Burmese people in general–in any way. Obama might soon find that his saintly pieces of advice have fallen short on Thein Sein regime. So much so for the first US presidential trip to Burma.


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