Obama's Myanmar visit draws mixed reactions

Human-rights campaigners say the military regime has duped the international community.

T-shirts printed with pictures of US president Barack Obama and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are displayed at a shop in downtown Yangon.
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Barack Obama's fleeting visit to Myanmar today - the first by a US president - has received mixed reactions from experts, with some claiming that the country's military regime has duped the international community into believing in a reform process that is only "skin deep".

Mr Obama will meet the Myanmar opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, at her home in Yangon today, as well as seeing the president, Thein Sein, who has been credited with kick-starting a broad reform movement over the past two years.

The Myanmar government has surprised observers with what appears to be a sudden opening up of the country after years of brutal dictatorship and international isolation.

It began releasing hundreds of political prisoners in 2010, including Ms Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for 15 of the previous 21 years, and allowed her party to stand in by-elections in April. It has also signed ceasefires with several ethnic rebel groups and relaxed some of its censorship rules.

But campaigners say Mr Obama's visit is premature given how far the reform process has still to go.

"It is too much, too soon," said Anna Roberts, executive director of Burma Campaign UK. "It's a really big reward for the small steps the government has taken. This leaves the US with no more leverage to press for further change."

She points to the ethnic violence directed against a Muslim community, the Rohingyas, which began in the summer in Myanmar's western Rakhine state. Locals say police and officials have done little to control the attacks, in which hundreds have been killed, homes and mosques destroyed, and thousands forced to flee.

The army also restarted a war against Kachin rebels in the north of the country in July 2011, in which they are accused of serious human-rights abuses.

Many countries, particularly the US, are keen to engage with Myanmar, not least because it offers a virgin market for all sorts of western goods, as well as substantial energy and natural resources. The US lifted a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from Myanmar ahead of Mr Obama's visit.

Ms Suu Kyi has warned against a "reckless optimism" among the international community regarding reforms in her country.

"Everybody is mainly interested in Myanmar because of its investment policies," she told The Hindu during a visit to India last week. "But investment has to be done in the right way, and also we have to keep in mind that we are just at the beginning of the road to democracy."

Members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have nonetheless welcomed Mr Obama's visit, saying it will boost the reform process.

"The president's visit does not mean things in the country are normal," said Tint Swe, a former NLD member of parliament who was forced into exile following the military repression of late 1980s.

"If we waited for all violence and human-rights abuses to end, no statesmen would ever come to Myanmar. An American president's visit to such a small, poor country indicates how Myanmar can play her legitimate role in the region."

Regardless of the consequences, the opening up of the country has so far been skilfully played by Mr Sein and his government, says Jan Zalewski, an analyst for IHS Global Insight, based in London. "They have sold the image of a government that is split between hardliners and reformists as a way of encouraging more foreign engagement. It's very useful for the Myanmar government and countries like the US to play on the hardliner/ softliner debate," Mr Zalewski said.

"That image allows Obama to say he is on the side of the reformers and therefore helping the democratic process.

"In reality, the reform process has been tightly controlled by the military and follows a plan that has been in place for many years. There is some disagreement within the government about the exact details of democratic reforms and how far they should go, but none of this would be happening if the military didn't want it to."

This article has been corrected since publication. The human rights organisation Burma Campaign UK was originally called Myanmar Campaign UK.