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Thida Aung and Tin Tin Tan await Obama's arrival near Yangon's Secretariat (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Thida Aung and Tin Tin Tan await Obama’s arrival near Yangon’s Secretariat (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

U.S President’s Myanmar visit low-key compared with 2012

YANGON – On his maiden visit to Myanmar in 2012, Barack Obama basked in the glow of a rock star welcome as thousands of people lined Yangon’s streets for a glimpse of the U.S. President.

Now more lame duck than idol, Obama was back in Myanmar last week to attend the East Asia Summit and to press the Myanmar government on reforms that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says are no longer happening.

“We hope that with his support it will make a more rosy future for us,” said Thida Aung, waving an A5-sized stars and bars retained from Obama’s visit two years ago. But Thida Aung and friend Thin Thin Tan were the sole flag-bearers among the roughly 300 onlookers awaiting Obama’s arrival at Yangon’s Secretariat building on Friday morning.

Obama was given a quick tour of the dilapidated old headquarters of British colonial rule, before meeting Suu Kyi and then holding a feel-good afternoon ‘town hall’ meeting with students at Yangon University.

Comparing the circumstances of Obama’s euphoric 2012 visit to now, Tin Oo, second in command of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), said that times had changed.

“There are some infringements that remain, some violations of human rights,” the 87 year old told The Edge Review.

When Obama last visited, Myanmar was relaxing press restrictions and freeing political prisoners – moves that prompted the U.S. to remove most sanctions and try draw Myanmar away from China as part of its ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy.

But this time Obama felt compelled to press Myanmar President Thein Sein on the rights of the oppressed 1 million Rohingya minority.

“The process of reform is by no means complete or irreversible. For many progress has not come fast enough, or spread far enough,” Obama said.

Myanmar has jailed several journalists this year, while one reporter, Ko Par Gyi, was murdered by the army in the country’s east. Some new laws have been heavily criticised, while calls to amend the country’s constitution, which gives the army a veto-wielding 25 percent of parliament seats, have not prompted any change yet.

“I think we certainly did see a lot of reforms in 2012 and 2013, but 2014 has perhaps added an element of realism, with the concerns over the constitutional amendment process,” Melissa Crouch, Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore, told The Edge Review.

But while the U.S. President fist-bumped and shook hands with hundreds of students late last Friday afternoon, China, perhaps feeling threatened by the pivot, was quietly signing almost $8billion worth of deals for power plants and farm support with its southwestern neighbour.

Despite American companies such as Coca-Cola, GE and Caterpillar setting up operations in Myanmar in the recent years, the U.S. is languishing as the 13th biggest source of investment in Myanmar – its $244million but a fraction of the $14billion and $10 billion ploughed in by Chinese and Thai businesses sincd 1988.

Myanmar’s opening-up has prompted frequent comparisons to Vietnam, which liberalised some of its closed economy in the 1990’s. Unlike Myanmar, however, Vietnam has not even pretended to open up its political system. Some dissidents are hounded and jailed, others exiled. While Myanmar is set to hold elections in a year’s time, there is no such prospect in Vietnam.

In Beijing, Obama met Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo and praised Indonesia’s democratic system. But Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was also afforded a one on one with Obama last week –  a meeting that came a month after the U.S. announced it would sell maritime defence equipment to Hanoi.

With the U.S. getting tight with the region’s one party states, Naypyidaw’s generals-turned-politicians might think there is no need for further reforms – not least when the U.S. has already removed most sanctions on Myanmar.

“They dropped the sanctions too soon,” said Kyaw Thu, founder of the Free Funeral Services Society, a respected Yangon NGO. “They should have kept some to bargain,” he added.

Tin Oo pictured at student meeting discussing new education law, Yangon, November 12 2014 (Photo: SImon Roughneen)

Tin Oo pictured at student meeting discussing new education law, Yangon, November 12 2014 (Photo: SImon Roughneen)

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