U.S. President, Barack H. Obama, made an historic first official state visit to Myanmar, and the media is framing a spectacle.
Outside, the streets were blocked and hard-faced policemen kept order with the brisk and bored efficiency that comes from long practice. Inside, grey-haired opposition politicians joked, students photographed one another and representatives of Burma’s scores of ethnic minorities in traditional woven caps waved excitedly.
Then the wait was over and the president of the United States of America stepped out on to the stage of the recently refurbished Convocation Hall of the University of Rangoon, closed to undergraduates for decades by authorities who feared unrest.
“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,” Barack Obama declared. “So today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”
Only, it’s barely true. It’s not so much friendship as opportunity and greed that drives the accommodation with the Thein Sein regime, and opposes China. According to Mamta Badkar, the goals of the gambit are petroleum, jade, and teak, as well as the determination to demonstrate that the “Pivot to Asia” is not mere rhetoric.
Or, as Peter Popham, who wrote a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, argues, friendship is “premature’.
…[I]t’s clearly a massive step, and it’s a massive vote of confidence for President Thein Sein and a tribute to the effectiveness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign over many years. There are reasons for thinking that perhaps it’s premature, because the one thing that Burma needs to do now is to enact constitutional change, to do something to remove the inevitability of generals continuing to rule in one form or another. And I think there is quite a lot of feeling that maybe the president has jumped the gun in the sense that constitutional change is not on the cards yet.
Jennifer Quigley, at the U.S. Campaign for Burma, agrees.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Quigly, you have been very critical, your organization, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, of President Obama going to Burma at this point. In fact, word was, although Aung San Suu Kyi accepted it now, she, too, originally said this is too soon. Why?
JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Because it’s seen as an endorsement of the current status quo in Burma, which while there’s been limited reform in central Burma, you’re seeing a lot of ethnic conflict carried out by the military, carried out by those with racial hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority. And so, going at this point is not going to be seen as his concern for the ethnic minorities; it’s going to be seen as an endorsement of the status quo in Burma, which is military rule with a few reform-minded individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is happening in the north of Burma right now, the significance of what’s taking place.
JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Well, there’s actually—there’s two. There’s northeast Burma. There’s been a war that the Burmese army has been fighting against the Kachin ethnic minority for 18 months, and denying humanitarian access to the IDPs from that war. The other has been since June of this year, some intercommunal violence that has really turned into a systematic, targeted violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority. And so, both of these things go to show you that the Burmese military has no plans whatsoever of changing their crimes against humanity, their war crimes, their complete dominance over the Burmese population. And so, while President Obama wants to sort of reward the reformists, they don’t have control over the Burmese military.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the issue of the business community coming in, the U.S. oil companies, the gas companies, that this is the moment for that? Do you think this is premature, Jennifer Quigley? Or do you think this is the time?
JENNIFER QUIGLEY: I mean, we absolutely think it’s premature. The entire human rights community earlier this year told the Obama administration to not allow investment in the oil and gas sector. That money goes directly into the pockets of the military. And so, all you’re doing is basically giving an endorsement of the continued atrocities that the Burmese military commits by allowing the American oil and gas sector to funnel them money.
AMY GOODMAN: The lifting of the sanctions?
JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Yes. I mean, that’s—that’s one of the things that concerns us the most, is that, you know, as of Friday, President Obama has now lifted every sanction other than those that are symbolic in nature. And so, the signal that this sends is not one of concern for continued human rights abuses and ethnic conflict and the activities of the Burmese military; it’s one where it shows that that is not a significant enough concern to President Obama.
Sadly the core US strategy of military presence hasn’t changed, and for as long as America believes it can guide China’s development through brute force, tensions will only escalate.
One of the centrepieces of the Obama administration has been its military pivot towards Asia, moving away from middle-east engagements and towards ensuring China doesn’t dominate the region. The policy epitomises American thinking that most global problems can be solved through military presence, but sadly they’ve ignored the benefits of diplomacy and humanitarian assistance.
Concentrating on military strength will only increase the pressure between the USA and China, souring international relations and ruining the possibilities for meaningful alliances to develop. The US has been increasing regional pressure, moving military assets into the region (such as an increased marine presence in Darwin Australia) and pressing its allies to allow the stationing of military bases in their territory (Thailand).
However, this emphasis on military presence is doing more to alienate Asian nations than ensure their support. Thailand is gradually standing up to American pressure and beginning to look towards Chinese friendship, which it sees as more mutually beneficial. Other countries will be increasingly enticed to do the same as China’s pull becomes stronger.
China is taking a different tack to its international relations, one virtually guaranteed to have more long-lasting success. I’ve written elsewhere about China’s relatively slow military development, and how Chinese military spending won’t reach US levels until a full 10 years (2035) after it becomes the world’s biggest economy. This fact demonstrates that whilst China might occasionally engage in military posturing with other major regional players, it is not aggressively pursuing military capabilities.
Instead China is concentrating on building bilateral and regional ties.
My first reaction is, that China is only trying to pull off in its backyard what the U.S. has done repeatedly throughout the postwar period. The missing element, though, is military prowess. Washington can project force halfway around the globe right at China’s underbelly, but China’s neighbors continue to play it against the Americans. Beijing tries to speak softly about trade without a big stick, and Washington prances into Yangon. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, because the U.S. has a choice about doing what Beijing is compelled to do.