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The right visit at the right time

Critics in the United States and around the world offered plenty of reasons why President Barack Obama shouldn’t have gone to Myanmar on Monday.

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar on Monday. REUTERS

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar on Monday. REUTERS

Critics in the United States and around the world offered plenty of reasons why President Barack Obama shouldn’t have gone to Myanmar on Monday.

Some called the visit premature, saying the country’s military junta has yet to atone for decades of human rights atrocities. Others worried it will be counterproductive, leaving the relatively new, nominally civilian government feeling complacent as political prisoners remain locked up. Ethnic and religious violence continues to make headlines and worry the global community.

Instead of listening to the naysayers, Mr Obama seized a historic opportunity in Myanmar and history may bear him out. “This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” he told reporters in Thailand. “This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”

Mr Obama visited a country at a crossroads, poised for a huge transition into what some consider the next Asian economic frontier. After five decades of military rule and international pariah status, Myanmar shows signs of becoming a politically open society and an emergent economic powerhouse, with major corporations and investors looking to capitalise on the expected boom.

Many business leaders who travel there see Myanmar, a nation of 60 million, as the centre of gravity for the Asian economy in a decade’s time, in part because of its strategic location between India and China. No country is better physically situated to capitalise on its vast wealth of natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, timber, tin, fisheries, and the potential to again become one of the world’s top rice exporters.

Others see Mr Obama’s visit in highly politicised terms, as another move in the pivot toward Asia and a strategy designed to check an increasingly assertive China and its sway over Myanmar as the latter seeks new openings to the West.

The first visit by a sitting American President — and the country’s “first Pacific President”, as he calls himself — is a clear signal of US engagement and encouragement for democratic advances. In Yangon, Mr Obama met two of the dominant players in Myanmar’s democratic changes — reformist President Thein Sein, who took office last year, and pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose release from house arrest and election to Parliament is a highly visible symbol of the growing openness.

OUTCOMES UNCERTAIN

Myanmar’s steady movement toward political and economic change comes without Arab-Spring like street protests and desperate social media posts. The government faced no urgent domestic or international crises to prompt real change.

Yet Myanmar’s ruling generals have long known that for the country to develop economically, it needs to become more outward-reaching, cut back on its political and economic reliance on China, work to end the punishing economic sanctions imposed by the US and other Western nations, and re-engage its neighbours and the West.

Along with rolling back economic sanctions against Myanmar and offering financial assistance, Mr Obama’s visit encourages the progress that has been made to date. But outcomes are uncertain.

In addition to resolving deep-seated ethnic strife between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims, easing the desperate poverty of the people, and moving away from its history of political repression, Myanmar will not succeed as an emergent economy if it cannot build an adequate infrastructure to support the living standards and economic security the country aspires to. That includes not just roads, bridges, investment laws, an open media, etc, but individual access to banking, health care and education.

Mr Obama is right: The ongoing reforms could not have been foreseen just a few short years ago, and other nations can play a role in encouraging Myanmar to re-join the global community. The naysayers have legitimate concerns, but at least Mr Obama cannot be accused of letting a historic opportunity go by.

His visit sends a clear message — not just to Myanmar, but to other countries in the world leaning towards greater openness and democracy — that the US will lend its support “if you are willing to unclench your fist”.

Tom Benner is a freelance journalist who covers public policy, culture and business. Before relocating to Singapore he served as Bureau Chief in the Massachusetts State House and as a longtime editorial writer for daily newspapers in the United States.

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