Myanmar: Obama’s Visit: Was It Significant, Symbolic Or Just A Diplomatic Exercise? – Analysis


By C.S. Kuppuswamy

“It is certainly not long overdue, nor is it premature. The US has been a good friend to the movement for democracy in Burma. Whatever they are doing they are doing with the intention of promoting democracy, rather than endorsing any particular regime” – Aung San Suu Kyi

“The record of the past year in US-Burma relations may be unique in modern independent Burmese history. At no time since Burma attained independence from the British in 1948 have relations with the United States been so positive.” David I. Steinberg

The Visit

President Obama paid a six-hour visit to Myanmar on 19 November 2012. He began the visit by meeting President Thein Sein at his official residence in Yangon and then had a private meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence. He was accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The visit to Myanmar was in between his four day trip to Thailand and Cambodia for attending the East Asia summit. He is the first ever sitting US President to visit the country.

More than the visit, the impact of the visit and the reactions from the various quarters have been widely discussed in the local as well as the international media.

Prior to the visit

“In an open letter to Obama, the Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus, a bipartisan group of more than 20 lawmakers, urged the president to push the Burmese government to end the violence and ensure that minority groups have fair opportunities for participation in the political process,” (The Irrawaddy 18 November 2012).

The Kachin alliance (a group of 34 Kachin Organisations) in their letter wrote that “Premature engagement with a government [that continues] to fund an army that is currently terrorizing innocent civilians and internally displaced persons could undermine the United States’ stature and integrity. These potential outcomes could further marginalize minorities in Burma and destabilize the country,” (The Irrawaddy 18 November 2012).

Some Human Rights Groups and other congress men associated with such groups had expressed that the President’s visit is premature and the human rights situation in Myanmar is still worse and the visit will only give an undeserved legitimacy to the regime.

In October, Washington invited Myanmar for the first time to observe “Cobra Gold”, the world’s largest multilateral military exercise, in what US officials described as a milestone in improved relations. The White House officials had also indicated that Obama’s impending visit should not be construed as a “victory celebration’.

The Objective:

US officials said that the goal was to indicate their support for the reforms underway and encourage the democratic practices and institutions. Jonathan Head of BBC writes that “Another goal – an unstated one – is to claw back some of the influence China has been able to exert over Burma during the years of isolation and sanctions.” (BBC News, 18 November 2012). Engagement with Myanmar is also of paramount importance for expanding the US influence in Asia.

The Venue

President Obama visited Rangoon and not the capital Naypyidaw where such high level visits take place. In a rare departure from the protocol President Thein Sein met Obama in Rangoon. The location (Rangoon University) where Obama addressed a public gathering is also significant for the reason that the democratic struggle in the country began at this university campus from Aung San’s days Though due to time constraints, the US Administration might have decided on Rangoon for the visit, much is being read into the decision of visiting Rangoon and the University.

Aung Zaw, Editor of the Irrawaddy writes “Everyone agrees that Obama sent a strong message to the government by not going to the new capital, and also chose the correct venue to deliver his speech. All my old friends and colleagues who studied at Rangoon University were delighted by his decision”. In our view too much should not be read on this isssue.

The Official Preparations and Reaction

The Myanmar government has made some well thought out plans for the visit. On the eve of the visit the government announced an amnesty for 452 prisoners which was termed as a “good will gesture”. However very few political detainees were in this list.

President Thein Sein interrupted his visit to Cambodia for the ASEAN summit to receive the US President in Rangoon (and not at Naypyidaw the capital).President Thein Sein reportedly assured the US President that “we are moving forward”.

The government has also announced that it would sign an international agreement that would require it to declare all nuclear facilities and materials (The Irrawaddy 21 November 2012). It had also spruced up the Rangoon University Campus (which was in a deplorable condition) prior to the visit.

The Speech

Excerpts from Obama’s speech at the Rangoon University Convocation Hall.

“Over the last year and a half, a dramatic transition has begun, as a dictatorship of five decades has loosened its grip.”

“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished – they must be strengthened.”

“I came here because of my respect for this university. It was here at this school where opposition to colonial rule first took hold. It was here that Aung San edited a magazine before leading an independence movement.”

“It was here that U Thant learned the ways of the world before guiding it at the United Nations. Here, scholarship thrived during the last century and students demanded their basic human rights.”

“We learned of ordinary people who organized relief teams to respond to a cyclone, and heard the voices of students and the beats of hip-hop artists projecting the sound of freedom. We came to know exiles and refugees who never lost touch with their families or their ancestral home. And we were inspired by the fierce dignity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart.”

Aung San Suu Kyi was also in the audience along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell.

Reaction of the Public

Huge crowds had lined up at the airport to receive Obama. Likewise people had thronged at Suu Kyi’s residence and on the way to the Rangoon University. There was excitement all-round. The convocation hall at the university was also packed to hear Obama. The people were happy for the way he was addressing the people directly with such utterances like “America is with you” and encouraging them in their struggle and sacrifices. The reactions indicate that they have high hopes on Obama and US for bringing in a true democracy to the country.

Reaction of Neighbouring Nations

“China’s neighbours welcome greater U.S. engagement in the region. But they also want to maintain cordial ties with the region’s largest economy, notwithstanding China’s assertive behavior in staking claim to disputed islands in the resource-rich East and South China Seas.” Julie Pace (The Irrawaddy 16 November 2012).

China has not openly reacted on this visit but analysts point out that China is bound to be uncomfortable with the increasing ties between US and Myanmar. However, China has much at stake in Myanmar with heavy investments and a dual pipe line running across the country from Sittwe to Yunnan.

News Analysis

The visit has given a great fillip to the democratic reforms underway, a certain amount of legitimacy to the government and a pat on the back of Thein Sein. However the country has many hurdles to cross even with US help as Suu Kyi had pointed out that “the most difficult time in any transition is when you think that success is in sight”.

The biggest hurdle is national reconciliation and finding a political solution for the ethnics for which external help alone will not suffice. US seems to be oblivions to this fact with its obsession for Suu Kyi.

With the US coming in a big way, balancing relations with China and US is going to be tricky for the Myanmar government.

In many ways the visit was not a symbolic one. It is aa significant development that augurs well for the country to move forward.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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