The happiest lot in Burma ahead of US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the country will be the ex-generals who have continued ruling the country behind the veneer of reforms. The ruling elites have been waiting for this moment since they came into power nearly two years ago. The US’s approval of the country’s reform process has been one of the core political objectives that the regime has tried to secure since transitioning into power.
President Obama will shake hands with most of the leaders of the former military junta except the top two – Than Shwe and Maung Aye who left the centre stage after the quasi-civilian government took power in 2011. It is a disgrace for the US president to make such a historic trip to Burma while hundreds of political prisoners still remain in jails, wars with ethnic minorities continue and societal unrests such as the communal strife in Arakan state and land grabs continue.
Reportedly, President Obama will speak at the Convocation Hall at Rangoon University –a campus that has been virtually closed for decades in order to silence student activists who opposed military rule. However, the university has remained a sacred site to those who stood up against different forms of oppression from colonialism to military dictatorship.
What President Obama decides to talk about at this venue will be of significant interest. Is he ready to say that the Burmese need to continue to struggle for democracy and fight against the dictators in disguise? Will he call the country Myanmar – the name bestowed on the country by the illegitimate military rulers?
In all likelihood, the American head of state will laud President Thein Sein for his so-called role in instituting democratic and irreversible reforms. President Obama will likely make the case for further reforms, which he can then chalk up as a foreign policy accomplishment in the future.
But is the American government really that concerned with the establishment of a democratic government in Burma?
The US’s real interest lies in Burma’s unique geopolitical location. Whether Aung San Suu Kyi continues to ascend the country’s political ladder is no longer the solitary concern of the Obama administration’s Burma policy. While they were ardent supporters of the country’s democracy movement in the past, the US is more interested in forging relationships with allies throughout Asia in an attempt to offset China’s long established influence in the region.
However, it would be a strategic miscalculation if the Obama administration believes the Burmese regime will become its latest ally in the Asia-Pacific region. The regime is populated by a group of military elites who are well-trained xenophobic nationalists. They strongly believe in maintaining relations with neighbouring countries in the region, especially China.
Nevertheless, the former generals of Burma are still eager to regain the US’s support with the goal of receiving funds and training for their military and intelligence forces, which they once enjoyed during the Ne Win era. Although the US was once the most vocal critic against the regime following the 1988 army military coup, in October the American government invited representatives from the Burmese military to observe Cobra Gold – the US’s largest multilateral military exercise in the region.
If President Obama’s trip to Burma signals that the US’s renewed relations with Burma will include providing the Burmese’s military and intelligence forces with support, then the US has taken a disturbing pivot in its relations with Burma and the region.
-Zaw Nay Aung is the Director at Burma Independence Advocates
The opinions and views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect DVB’s editorial policy.