President Barack Obama will visit Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, and Thailand on November 17-20. Burma’s junta regime has a checkered past, in terms of human rights, but has seen some reforms take place over the past two years. Obama will meet with President Thein Sein and also with Aung San Suu Kyi, a nobel laureate, who heads up the National League for Democracy (NLD). When arriving in Cambodia, Obama will attend the East Asia summit in Phnom Penh with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Obama is the first U.S. president to visit Burma; however, Thailand has witnessed visits from George W. Bush twice (2003 and 2008), Bill Clinton in 1996, LBJ in 1966/’67, and Richard Nixon went there during the Vietnam War era (1969). One may ask, what’s behind Obama’s trip to Burma? Several motives have been cited in the articles I’ve read, but the Obama Administration’s exact motivation is unknown. Although it looks like Obama would like to play a role in galvanizing the democratic process in Burma, which in the past, has been marred by a brutal military dictatorship.
BBC News has published some good information on what’s been happening in Burma over the past few years (Timeline: Reforms in Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘I have personal regrets’). The BBC’s piece on Aung San Suu Kyi tells much about how oppressive the Burmese government has been, where she was placed in house arrest when returning to her country to see her severely ill mother in 1988. Yet now, to see how much things have changed there, the NLD has 43 out of 45 seats in parliament (by election), as of April.
If you’re anything like me, you may want to study up on the lengthy and complicated history of Burma before Obama’s trip there on the 17th. The Wikipedia page (as usual) is helpful to fill in the gaps for all the recent changes in Burma; or you may need to rewind the tape several hundred years back to when Britain colonized Burma in 1824. More recently, sectarian disputes between the Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine have seen many deaths on both sides, as well as thousands of people displaced.
The Burmese army has been targeting Rohingya Muslims (according to Wikipedia); my take away from these ethnic conflicts occurring this year, is that many reforms are still needed in the way of human rights. Yet the government has released hundreds of political prisoners in January of this year; as a result of this, the US is easing sanctions on Burma. I see Obama’s visit as an effort to encourage and consolidate these improvements, as the country moves towards a more complete democracy.