The oppressive and bloody reign of Myanmar’s rulers for the past 50 years means there’s quite a lot of un-defining to be done. The president noted the nation has taken dramatic steps in a positive direction. “When I took office as president, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your first,” Obama said during his tour of Asia that besides Myanmar has included stops in Thailand and Cambodia. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”
Despite Myanmar’s recent progress, notes Human Rights Watch, “hundreds of political prisoners remain, ethnic civil war and inter-ethnic conflict has escalated, and Burmese security forces continue to use forced labor and commit extrajudicial killings, sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, among other abuses.”
The courageous Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspirational leader and longtime enemy of Myanmar’s ruling junta who saw her freedom limited by living almost 20 years under house arrest, met Monday with Obama. Her remarks afterward were tinged with caution, a feeling no doubt justified by her own lengthy imprisonment. “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” Suu Kyi said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.”
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine ahead of Obama’s visit, Joshua Kurlantzick heaved a bucket of cold water on excitement over Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Yes, he wrote, the country’s new president, Thein Sein, is leading a reform movement, but no one should expect instant miracles.
“In part because of the legacy of war and government mismanagement, more than 50 percent of Myanmar still lacks basic physical infrastructure — electricity, usable roads, and rails — of the kind that were taken for granted by investors coming into China and Vietnam, or other Asian tigers like Malaysia and Thailand,” Kurlantzick writes.
Accepting the basic truth here, what’s a U.S. president to do? Nurture the hopeful seed of democracy? Or stay quiet until we can inspect the quality of the fruit produced by that seed?
Obama’s remarks this week indicate he has taken the first option, praise the loosening of strict rule while calling for more reform. In fact, his remarks are worth noting, both abroad and here at home, where the upcoming holiday season, fighting in the Middle East and domestic politics have claimed much of the spotlight this week.
“Over the last several decades, our two countries became strangers,” Obama said in his speech in Myanmar. “But today, I can tell you that we always remained hopeful about the people of this country, about you. You gave us hope and we bore witness to your courage.”
He continued, “So as extraordinary and difficult and challenging and sometimes frustrating as this journey may seem, in the end, you, the citizens of this country, are the ones who must define what freedom means. You’re the ones who are going to have to seize freedom, because a true revolution of the spirit begins in each of our hearts.”