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SINGAPORE — Continuing with the latest in a series of image-rebuilding foreign policy speeches, US President Barack Obama proclaimed himself “America’s first Pacific President” in Tokyo earlier today.

His address touched on a wide array of issues, from the US-Japan alliance to China’s emerging global clout and North

US President Barack Obama delivers a speech in Tokyo on Saturday. (Photo: AP)
US President Barack Obama delivers a speech in Tokyo on Saturday. (Photo: AP)

Korean nuclear ambitions. Foreshadowing his meeting with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Singapore tomorrow, Obama also said that Washington’s new policy of talking to Burma’s military junta does not mean an end to sanctions, unless “there are concrete steps toward democratic reform.”

Tomorrow’s inaugural US-Asean summit will see the first meeting between a US president and a Burmese leader since Lyndon Johnson met Gen Ne Win in Washington in 1966. Ahead of tomorrow’s meeting, Obama reiterated the need for the junta to free political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to have “genuine dialogue” with the opposition and ethnic minority groups.

Making a subtle overture to the junta, which is thought to shy from reform due to a belief that only the military can hold the country together, Obama said that democratic reform can bring Burma “true security and prosperity.”

While the US-Asean meeting will encompass discussions on trade and growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, Obama is expected to raise Burma with the ten Asean leaders, who will include Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein among their number.

Speaking in Singapore earlier this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked that China, India and Asean chair Thailand collaborate with the US in trying to bring about change in Burma.

Obama needs to take the opportunity tomorrow to advocate for a more forceful Asean policy in Burma—a move that would be welcomed by Burmese exiles and opposition groups. Obama “should urge Asean to echo the US view that without the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners, the 2010 elections will not be recognized as credible,” Aung Din, the executive director of the US Burma Campaign, told The Irrawaddy.

Given concerns over an apparent softening of US human rights advocacy, Obama might need to make a forceful statement to Asean leaders tomorrow, and follow this up with an unequivocal affirmation that the US will not lift sanctions without credible reform in Burma.

At the Asean Summit held in Thailand last month, there was scant mention of Burma, giving the impression that Asean was passing the buck onto the US. Both Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told media that engagement was the best policy toward Burma, giving the impression that they thought the US was about to lift sanctions unconditionally.

“It is very important that President Obama act to clear up the misunderstanding within the region over the new US position on Burma,” said Benedict Rogers, the author of a biography of Burmese junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

“The new engagement approach is wrongly perceived by Asean and others in Asia as a softening of US policy, which may even result in the abandonment of sanctions. As a result, Asean countries are interpreting it as an excuse for them to relax and continue with their own soft approach, just at a time when some Asean members had been showing some encouraging signs of strengthening their stand,” Rogers told The Irrawaddy in an email.

At the same time, Obama could tell Thein Sein tomorrow that the US is sincere about easing sanctions, if the junta carries out reforms. The Burmese military rulers remain distrustful of outsiders, according to most analysts, and might not trust the good intentions of the Obama administration.

Obama’s voice should carry more weight with Thein Sein than that of Clinton or any other senior official, such as Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who traveled to Burma recently for the first high-level diplomatic visit to the country by a US official in 14 years.

A face-to-face meeting between the US president and the Burmese prime minister has been ruled out, but Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy believes that “President Obama should tell Thein Sein that every positive move Burma makes will be reciprocated.”

Experts speaking to The Irrawaddy all agree that Obama should follow up on his Asean discussion of Burma when he proceeds to China on Sunday evening, given Clinton’s midweek plea and China’s close ties with the junta.

A strong statement by Obama that he intends to do just this might add steel to any conciliatory pledges he makes in the name of gaining a measure of trust from Thein Sein. With China building a new pipeline linking western Burma to Yunnan Province, rights activists want Obama to ask Beijing to ensure that the scorched earth tactics used by the Burmese military on civilian populations during and after the building of the Shwe gas corridor are not replicated this time around.

However, the concern remains that the US will not let Burma’s lack of reform impede overall policy toward Asean and Southeast Asia, and that the new “engagement” dimension to US policy is designed to get around the Burma obstacle to closer US-Asean ties.

“One of the frustrations that we’ve had with policy toward Burma over recent years has been that the inability to have interaction with Burma has prevented certain kinds of interaction with Asean as a whole,” Obama’s Asia advisor Jeffrey Bader said earlier this week.

US allies Thailand and Singapore have close commercial ties with the junta, buying gas and acting as banker for energy revenues, which are thought to be siphoned by regime cronies, using an undervalued kyat-dollar exchange rate that allows the ruling generals to make revenues appear much smaller than they actually are. There is no indication so far that Obama will ask Thailand or Singapore to review these links as a means of turning the screw on the Burmese rulers.

“Whilst urging Asean to support diplomatic pressure for regime reform in Burma, it is likely that Burma is only one of several difficult issues that must not get in the way of the United States being perceived as reemerging in the Southeast Asian sphere of influence,” said Monique Skidmore, author of “Karaoke Fascism: Burma and the Politics of Fear.”

Meanwhile, rumors abound that the Burmese army will attack ethnic militias that refuse to join the state security forces, either before or after the proposed 2010 elections. While such a move would destabilize the region, sending thousands of refugees into Thailand and China, the US would likely welcome the removal of narcotics-peddling groups such as the United Wa State Army, which have been under close scrutiny by the US Drug Enforcement Agency for many years.

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