US President Barack Obama will endow Myanmar’s startling reform drive with his newly replenished political prestige tomorrow, as he makes history in a short, but hugely symbolic, visit to the country.
Thirteen days after he was re-elected, Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit the formerly isolated state, hoping to spur greater reform and to highlight a rare success for his policy of engaging pariah regimes.
However, his mission is not without peril: Should Myanmar’s new political dawn darken and conservative forces move to regain control, Obama’s trip could appear in hindsight as premature and invite a domestic political backlash.
Obama hopes to solidify the political reforms of Burmese President Thein Sein by granting the Myanmar leader his highest profile moment on the world stage since his government replaced junta rule.
“I want to be very clear that we see this visit as building on the progress that the Burmese government has made,” US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
“We are going in part to encourage them to continue down that road, because much more needs to be done within Burma to realize the full potential of its people,” he said.
After meeting Thein Sein, Obama will visit the rickety home of Aung San Suu Kyi, where his fellow Nobel peace laureate was confined for years.
Obama was deeply impressed by Aung San Suu Kyi during their private meeting in the Oval Office in September and told aides the National League for Democracy leader lived up to her billing.
However, there will be an air of incongruity when Air Force One touches down and Obama’s armored motorcade rattles through Yangon’s decrepit streets, in the shadow of the gleaming, golden spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
That Obama will be there at all is testament to the pace and depth of a reform drive that took US officials by surprise after they spent years isolating the country’s ruling generals through sanctions.
For some US-based human rights groups, the visit is coming too soon in a reform process that has left the cards overwhelmingly stacked in favor of the military in the country’s new parliament.
Myanmar watchers also say the future of reforms faces a serious threat from the country’s intractable ethnic insurgencies and deadly communal unrest in the West.
Euphoria over Myanmar’s emergence from decades of junta rule has been tempered by concern over the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Rakhine State who are widely seen as illegal immigrants to the country.
Rights groups have criticized Thein Sein for a military crackdown in the region and accused Aung San Suu Kyi of staying mute on the contentious issue.
Washington is concerned that unrest in Rakhine and other festering ethnic conflicts in Shan and Kachin states risk undermining hopes of stability.