5 things to watch for in Obama’s visit to Burma

November 18, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Burmese President Thein Sein in Burma in December 2011. (Saul Loeb/Associated Press)

President Obama will make history on Monday, becoming the first-ever U.S. president to visit Burma, a long-isolated Southeast Asian rogue state, called Myanmar by its rulers. The Obama administration has set rapprochement land speed records in its efforts to encourage the former military dictatorship in its recent democratic reforms and to bring the strategically located country, east of India and south of China, its long-time patron, into the American fold. Though Obama's visit is scheduled to take less than a day — he will arrive in the morning from Thailand and fly out that evening for Cambodia — it will set a historic milestone in his administration's effort to expand American influence and leadership in East Asia. Here are five things to watch for.

1. Who will get more diplomatic pomp: Aung San Suu Kyi or President Thein Sein?

Though it might sound like a triviality, in the highly choreographed state visits like this one that play such an important role in international diplomacy, the question of who gets more fanfare and attention is a crucial one. The U.S. has made extravagant gestures toward Aung San Suu Kyi, the internationally celebrated democracy activist who was just recently released from house arrest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also personally met with the country's actual leader, President Thein Sein. The Burmese president will probably receive more attention and fanfare from the U.S. delegation, adhering to standard diplomatic practice. But the greater share of attention that goes to the Nobel peace prize-winning dissident, the more that Obama's visit will implicitly emphasize support for Burmese democratic development over, say, the geopolitical influence against China that Thein Sein can better deliver. Of course, Obama's trip will likely seek both, but the question of emphasis will be a fascinating one to watch.

2. Will Obama offer the government anything tangible?

The presidential visit is, on its own, a sort of goodwill offering to Burma's government, of which two things are true: It has done truly horrible things to its own people, and it has recently shown remarkable and demonstrable progress in reforming. Obama's visit signals to Burma's people, its neighbors, and fellow rogue states that his administration is willing to reward such progress "action for action," as diplomats put it. The government's latest such action, the announced released of 452 prisoners just a few days ago, suggests it's serious. Will they get anything beyond Obama's visit itself? More concessions would drive home the U.S.'s desire for further reforms and build in powerful incentives for the government, but it would also necessarily give up what could have otherwise been leverage and would seemingly lower the bar for what Burma has to do to secure more American rewards.

3. Will Obama mention the ugly sectarian fighting, a touchy issue there?

The country is still mired in violence in Rakhine state, between security forces who may have "sparked" the conflict, according to the Council on Foreign Relations' Joshua Kurlantzick, and local Muslim populations. Prominent Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, a close ally of the U.S. rapprochement and perhaps of American leaders personally, has shown surprisingly little interest in pushing to end the violence in Rakhine, and anti-Muslim sentiment remains problematically high. If Obama even hints at the issue, it would be a major sign of U.S. commitment to human rights in the country, particularly given that it would risk U.S. diplomatic influence within Burma, including among democracy activists. If he doesn't, which seems most likely, it could reinforce the degree to which this trip is about strategic diplomacy. Which brings us to ...

4. Will China, or the counter-balancing Southeast Asian group ASEAN, come up?

Burma was long a close ally of China, and its turn away from totalitarianism and toward the U.S. is seen as partly about turning away from China. This is good news for the Obama administration's efforts to deepen U.S. influence in the areas around China, particularly in Southeast Asia. But furthering America's influence there and weakening China's is partly incumbent on strengthening the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a multinational body that seeks to integrate Southeast Asian nations, three of which Obama is visiting this week. The stronger that ASEAN is, the easier time that Southeast Asia will have organizing to counter-balance China's influence. But the group has had some real trouble, something that U.S. diplomats have been working to correct. The degree to which Obama discusses it could suggest the degree to which Obama's trip is about China.

5. Will he call the country Burma or Myanmar?

The U.S. officially refers to it by its pre-junta name, Burma. But its leaders refer to it as Myanmar. For years, U.S. insistence on labeling the nation Burma was a way to signal disregard for the brutal military dictatorship that had renamed it. But now that the U.S. is welcoming a softer version of that same regime out of isolation and back into the world, will U.S. diplomats — and perhaps, one day, even Obama himself — come to adopt the regime's chosen national name? Though this might sound minor, it would be a major diplomatic concession to the country's rulers. Complicating the issue, as those rulers open up, continued U.S. usage of "Burma" over "Myanmar" could be taken as a slight. At some point, America will have to choose.

Bonus: Will Obama mention his grandfather's connection to Burma?

During World War II, Obama's Kenyan grandfather "traveled to Burma, Ceylon and Arabia as a cook for a British captain in the King’s African Rifles," the New York Times' Peter Baker writes, reconstructing the stories of the elder Obama's visit. "The unit played a crucial role in the Burma campaign, according to scholars." Obama is not known for playing up his Kenyan roots, although perhaps there is an opening for using the anecdote to discuss the U.S.'s role in liberating Burma from Japanese imperialism during the war.

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