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November 16, 2011

Obama Uses Asia-Pacific Trip to Nudge Burma Toward More Reform

by Dan Robinson

U.S. President Barack Obama has again used a major Asia trip to nudge Burma's  government toward more rapid reforms.  President Obama's remarks calling for further concrete progress in Burma came during an address in Australia about regional security, economic and political progress in the region.

In November of 2010, Obama was making his way through Asia on a 10-day trip that included the world's largest democracy India;  one of the largest emerging Asian democracies, Indonesia;  and stops in South Korea and Japan.

As he departed Washington, there were increasing indications that Burma's military government would end the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won an overwhelming victory in elections some two decades before.

Burma's ruling generals did release the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  In Japan at the time, Obama issued a statement calling her a hero of his, and he urged the Burmese military to release the estimated 2,000 political prisoners it held, and do more to move toward unconditional dialogue with the opposition.

The president also spoke out about Burma at other stops on his trip, including in a speech to India's parliament and in Indonesia, where he called Burma one of the challenges facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the world.

Fast forward one year to Obama's current Asia-Pacific trip, which has been designed to help boost U.S. exports and encourage free trade, and his speech in Canberra, setting out his vision of a strong, permanent U.S. security and economic presence.

Standing in Australia's Parliament, the president also drew a connection between prosperity and respect for fundamental human rights in a region he sees as the economic engine for the world.

Obama turned to Burma, where he says U.S. support for basic rights "guided" Washington's approach of using engagement and sanctions to bring about change.

Although there has been progress, he says more needs to be done and that the United States will continue to speak clearly to Burma's government about what those steps are.

"Today, Aung San Suu Kyi is free from house arrest. Some political prisoners have been released.  The government has begun a dialogue," noted the president. "Still, violations of human rights persist. So we will continue to speak clearly about the steps that must be taken for the government of Burma to have a better relationship with the United States."

After he was elected in 2008, Obama ordered a review of U.S. policy toward Burma.   In the view of  those in Burma opposition communities around the world urging strong new U.S. pressure, it lasted far too long.

The administration eventually settled on the engagement approach it is still pursuing.  Burma's military has yet to release all political prisoners, although additional releases are expected, and the administration is watching closely for signs of further positive change.

Speaking in Australia, Obama also mentioned Indonesia - which is chairman of ASEAN East Asia Summit in Bali.

Obama said large democracies need to partner with emerging democracies such as Indonesia, to help "strengthen institutions upon which good governance depends."

Analysts say Burma's expected assumption of the rotating chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN - which sponsors the East Asia Summit Obama attends on Friday and Saturday - could produce additional pressure on the Burmese government to speed up reforms.

Burmese President Thein Sein, who is viewed as having pushed reforms ahead in the country, is in Bali. The Burmese government has called on the United States to lift sanctions in place since 1997 - a call backed by other members of ASEAN.