In May 2008, as Burma reeled from Cyclone Nargis, its worst ever natural disaster that claimed more than 130,000 lives, a rumor began floating through the darkened, tree-felled streets of Rangoon, the country’s largest city. Would the Americans stage a humanitarian intervention to aid the millions of storm victims that the long-ruling military junta was ignoring?
More than four years later, on the morning on Nov. 19, a U.S. government plane finally touched down at Rangoon’s Mingaladon Airport. It was not there to invade one of the world’s most isolated nations, as Burma’s army rulers feared might happen at the height of their cloistered paranoia. Instead, Air Force One navigated Rangoon’s worn runway and rolled past a thicket of tropical foliage to make Barack Obama the first ever U.S. President to visit this strategic nation wedged between India and China. Outside the airport, schoolchildren lined the street, waving Burmese and American flags. “I love Mr. Obama,” said 14-year-old Min Myat No Khin. “I love America. I love democracy.”
Just a few years ago, each of those three sentiments, even if expressed by a pigtailed student, might have been prisonable offenses. But in a Burma now ruled by a hybrid military-civilian government, the culture of fear that smothered the country for nearly half a century has largely evaporated. Obama’s historic visit served to validate the efforts of Burma’s new rulers, who took over in March 2011 after a political transition managed by the former junta. Helmed by President Thein Sein, a retired general with the potential to become a Burmese Gorbachev, the country officially known as Myanmar is attempting a rare feat: a democratic awakening spurred not by the footfall of protesting citizens but by the rulers themselves.
Obama’s Asia trip, his first foreign outing since his re-election, includes stops in Thailand and Cambodia. But it was with Burma that the U.S. President was making his strongest statement. Shortly after taking office, Obama eased American foreign policy toward greater engagement with Burma’s generals. Naysayers predicted that the clutch of xenophobic generals would not respond. But for whatever reason, Burma’s opening soon followed. For an American leader who calls himself the country’s “first Pacific President” and has pivoted U.S. foreign policy toward Asia in an effort to hedge China, the good news coming out of Burma couldn’t have occurred at a more opportune time. The lessons of the Arab Spring, by contrast, are far more complicated for the President to parse.
Burma’s new leadership was ushered in by flawed polls in 2010 and is bound by an even more flawed constitution. Nevertheless, Thein Sein’s government has introduced a raft of substantive reforms, allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to participate in April polls that resulted in her becoming an elected member of parliament, hacking away at press censorship, releasing political prisoners and signing cease-fires with some of the ethnic militias that had been battling the central government for decades. In return, the U.S., like many other Western nations, has eased the economic sanctions that had further isolated an already reclusive regime and pushed it into China’s economic embrace. Just a few months ago, the Rangoon airport where Obama landed was decorated with advertisements for local instant-coffee brands and jewelry companies owned by the regime’s cronies. Now, the biggest sign in baggage claim is a Coca-Cola advertisement: “Cola Welcome to Myanmar.”
Obama’s visit, just six hours long, packed in enough action to rival a Japanese package tourist’s itinerary. He met with the Burmese President; hugged Suu Kyi at her lakeside villa, where she was kept under house arrest for so many years; engaged with civil-society activists, including monks, former dissidents and labor organizers; toured the country’s holiest site, the golden spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda; and finally capped his afternoon with a speech at the University of Yangon, where the audience was warmed up with an all-American soundtrack of Miles Davis, Glenn Miller and Ella Fitzgerald. Once known as Rangoon University, the school was an educational jewel of the British Empire and teethed on dissent. It was there that some of Burma’s leading anticolonialist thinkers honed their activism, including Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Aung San. It was also there in 1988 that students rose up against the army leaders in Burma’s own version of the Tiananmen Massacre, a democratic uprising with the same violent, tragic end. Since then, the original campus has moldered, with nearly all students forced to study on the outskirts of town, lest they rally against the government once again. Once boasting high education-and-health standards in Asia, Burma is now one of the continent’s laggards because of the government’s gross economic mismanagement.
But if the site of Obama’s speech implicitly honored the democratic yearnings of Burma’s stifled people, the U.S. President also gave the new government its due. “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said. “So today I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.” Earlier Thein Sein, during his joint remarks with Obama, returned the compliment — this from a man who spent years as part of a rabidly anti-American junta. “For the first 20 years, there were some difficulties and obstacles in our bilateral relations,” he said. “But, however, when President Obama took office in the United States, and because of the visions, a re-engagement policy of the President … our bilateral relations have been progressing steadily.”