AS PRESIDENT OBAMA flew to Southeast Asia late last week, one of his advisers was quoted as saying that a renewed focus on Asia will be “a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy.”
The focus on Asia is understandable, but the discussion of legacy seems a bit premature — and helps explain why human rights activists were nervous that Mr. Obama might proclaim a premature victory in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma, also known as Myanmar. Burma, for decades one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, has taken encouraging steps toward political reform. But power remains in the hands of its generals and former generals, and it won’t be a democracy until at least 2015, when parliamentary elections are scheduled.
In the event, Mr. Obama struck a balance between acknowledging the progress made so far and encouraging the further steps that are essential. His goal, he said after meeting democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is to “sustain the momentum” toward democratization. In a speech at Yangon University, Mr. Obama said that “this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go.”
“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must be strengthened,” the president said.
Mr. Obama stressed the importance of embedding the progress in a constitution. He emphasized the connection between political reform and economic progress, noting that farmers need to feel secure in their ownership of land. In a primarily Buddhist nation where Muslims have been the victims of communal violence, and where fighting continues between the army and other ethnic minorities, Mr. Obama urged the nation to find strength in its diversity. He noted that “there are prisoners of conscience who still await release.”
The government responded by conditionally freeing more than 40 political prisoners, including several leading activists. It promised to set up a process to review the cases of remaining prisoners and to invite the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office in the capital of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.
Ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit, human rights activists worried that he was bestowing the prize of his prestige too soon and would be left with too little leverage. The administration is betting that it can encourage more progress with continued engagement than by making demands from afar. That strikes us as a defensible bet, as long as it remains tempered with the caution Mr. Obama expressed in his brief visit Monday.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who hosted Mr. Obama in the lakeside home where she was kept under house arrest for the better part of two decades, stressed that difficult years remain ahead.
“I say difficult because the most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she cautioned. “Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working to a genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.”