NEW DELHI — President Obama is considering a visit to Myanmar within the next few weeks, according to news reports Thursday, as part of his administration’s bid to bolster democracy and strengthen ties with Asian nations in the region.
Neighboring Cambodia said this week that Obama will attend an Asian summit meeting in its capital of Phnom Penh on Nov. 18. Myanmar has made security arrangements for a Nov. 18-19 presidential visit, an unnamed official in the capital of Naypyidaw told the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse news services, adding that the schedule has not been finalized.
While such a visit would carry risks -– most notably by staking presidential prestige on a government still dominated by generals with a brutal past -– it dovetails with the administration’s visible support for Myanmar’s nascent democracy. It also fits with its so-called pivot strategy aimed at checking China’s influence by bolstering military and political ties with democracies on its periphery.
The timing of the visit, if it does come off, would presumably not be appreciated in Beijing as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership change early next year in which Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao as president. Analysts said little news is expected out of the summit of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, attended by regional leaders, with any Myanmar trip more likely to grab headlines.
U.S. policy toward Myanmar, also known as Burma, has gained more heft since opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi visited in September. Washington has invited Myanmar to observe its “Cobra Gold” military exercise in Thailand early next year, announced an expansion of aid and whittling away of economic sanctions.
And the World Bank, strongly influenced by Washington, last week offered the impoverished country an $80-million development package. Myanmar President Thein Sein was the first Myanmar leader to speak before the U.N. General Assembly when he made a landmark trip to New York in September.
This follows a series of visits to Myanmar by U.S. officials including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Bridget Welsh, a political science professor with Singapore Management University, said circumstantial evidence in recent days of a pending presidential visit includes a rumored special editorial supplement planned by the Myanmar Times and advance bookings in major hotels for a sizable “Western delegation.”
“Burma is an example of a foreign policy success for the Obama administration,” she said. “It’s strategic to make a visit there to boost his record.”
Assuming he makes the trip, however, Obama must counter criticism that he’s largely ignoring its checkered human rights record.
“We think the visit is premature,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asian director of Human Rights Watch, a civic group. “What is actually the rush?”
Myanmar has seen months of sectarian violence between minority Muslim Rohingya and majority Buddhist Rakhine in which dozens of people have been killed and tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, left homeless. The government doesn’t recognize the officially stateless Rohingya as citizens, has blocked aid groups from providing humanitarian assistance and made little effort to find a solution.
Myanmar retains many repressive laws and decrees, its army continues to commit human rights violations in ethnic Kachin state and an estimated 300 political prisoners remain in jail nationwide, Robertson said.
“It’s a bit perverse to have a visit when there are any political prisoners in Burma,” he added.
But analysts said the administration is betting that “robust engagement” with the newly civilian government will cement recent reforms -– including multiparty elections, an easing of media restrictions and Suu Kyi’s election to parliament -- and spur further opening. In a statement Thursday, Suu Kyi urged the government to deploy more troops in western Myanmar to quell Buddhist-Muslim unrest after coming under criticism for her reluctance to condemn discrimination against the Rohingya.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has moved from icon to politician,” said Welsh. “And political prerogative has won over principle.”
Even as Obama seeks to highlight a foreign-policy success story, his administration’s growing engagement with Myanmar could backfire if its generals decide that reforms are moving too fast, threatening their fortunes and grip on power, leading to a backlash.
“You saw this in Indonesia in the early 1990s, when it opened but then closed,” said Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian studies at Australia’s University of Sydney. “I think everyone’s got a right to be cautious.”
Photo: Children gather to play near a
building damaged during recent violence in western Myanmar on Wednesday. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press