Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting American president, is predominantly symbolic but he's going for all the right reasons at the wrong time.The ostensible rationale for the trip is to acknowledge and further encourage nascent reforms embarked on by Myanmar's President Thein Sein since March 2011, which have evinced widespread optimism that Myanmar has taken a genuine turn away from decades of harsh military-authoritarian rule. United States government policy on Myanmar during the past year's openings has contained calibrated support and continued criticism over the country's continuing human rights situation. Among Naypyidaw's reforms have seen the release of over 300 political prisoners, the convening of parliament, greater press freedoms, the return of exiled political activists and the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.
Less tangible have been promises of economic and legal reforms, and the extremely fragile start of peace talks with a dozen ethnic armed groups that have waged internecine war with the central state for decades. Washington responded with a premature, some would say hasty, removal of US sanctions that should have been gradually repealed in line with demonstrable steps to reform. Diplomatic moves included a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a year ago and the installation of the first US ambassador in Rangoon in more than 20 years. On the aid side, United States Agency for International Development has significantly increased much needed humanitarian assistance.
And now even the Pentagon is getting into the act, starting an increased military discourse with Burma's still powerful and abusive defence services. While Clinton and the State Department deserve recognition for their efforts in responding to reform signals from Myanmar's ruling clique, now Obama's visit proclaims Burma as an almost unalloyed foreign policy success of his first term. The presidential visit will be limited to the former capital Yangon, where he will meet with Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He will also deliver a major speech on US relations with Burma and, perhaps, the larger challenges of promoting human rights in Asia. The risk is that such a brief appearance could go long on pyrrhic and pull up short on principle.
There is a fine line between encouraging the reform process and inadvertently emboldening further bad behaviour by extant forces within Myanmar's military-parliamentary complex that have benefited from the optimistic engagement of the US, European Union and other governments - and their business communities - without necessarily improving their behaviour. Obama's speech will have to balance encouragement for progress while confronting some unpleasant facts that serve as dark clouds over the reform effort. Sectarian violence in Rakhine State has resulted in hundreds of deaths and more than 100,000 internally displaced persons, and renewed waves of ethnic Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing the country.
It has also revealed a virulent undercurrent of racism from the broader Burmese society, including Buddhist monks, opposition activists and government officials alike. Ongoing conflict in the northern Kachin State since mid-2011 between the military and ethnic Kachin rebels has similarly resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and displaced at least 70,000 people. There the Burma Army is using the same brutal template of scorched earth tactics and abuses against civilians that it has used in pursuit of pacification in ethnic areas for decades. Ongoing fighting and entrenched political positions on both sides of the conflict indicate that sustainable peace in Kachin state may well be an arduous and elongated process taking years.
The elephant in the room that Obama needs to address is the role of the Burmese military in the country. The Burma Army is just as abusive as it was two years ago when his administration publicly supported the call for a United Nations-led inquiry into longstanding allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The military remains the wild card in the reform process because it remains the country's dominant and dominating institution and so far has seemingly been reluctant to get with the programme. Uncertainty about the army's intentions is a factor that creates great unease across the spectrum of views on the reform process.
Thein Sein's inability or reluctance to rein in the army's abusive behaviour in Kachin State raises questions about both the degree of his influence over the army and his sincerity over military reform. In fact, the military institutionally possesses overbroad political powers under the 2010 constitution - including the power to appoint 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament and also the authority to unilaterally dissolve that parliament if it so wishes. The budget of the military is also set outside of parliament's purview. Elections for the remaining seats in parliament are due in 2015, but even if Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy sweep the elections, they will still be vulnerable to military pressure and control.
Obama should state clearly to both President Thein Sein and the military that constitutional reform has to be made a priority to eliminate undemocratic aspects of the constitution and ensure civilian leadership and control of the armed forces. Obama will also have to recognize that fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now facing criticism from within Myanmar, particularly from ethnic communities for her studied refusal to condemn ongoing rights violations against the Rohingya and Kachin. This is added to tough questions from the international community about her unwillingness to use her moral authority with the Burmese people and the government to demand protection of the rights of the Rohingya and the Kachin.
Obama should recognise that the view that Myanmar's political matrix runs on the symbiotic relationship between the reform-minded Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi - and her party's pragmatic engagement with the system - is one that excludes many other perspectives. Especially from ethnic minority communities, which believe she has been effectively 'neutralised' by the government. Myanmar's plethora of other problems also needs to be addressed, since they will all impact on both development and human rights in Burma. These include a lack of bureaucratic capacity, endemic corruption, a legal system beholden to the government, land rights issues exacerbated by the spectre of rapacious international and domestic investment, and widespread poverty with growing economic inequality.
These problems all demand international support, but it's crucial that international donor aid pouring into the country is deployed in a way that supports long-term reforms, a burgeoning civil society, and democratic change. Rather than pushing forward this quick trip to Myanmar, Obama should have taken his time. He ideally could have met with Thein Sein on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia and then planned a fulsome and meaningful presidential bilateral visit in 2014; when Myanmar takes the chair of that regional grouping and the reform process is more advanced and ready for assessment. In lieu of this cautionary and long-term investment, Obama should use his six hours in Yangon to set clear guidelines for the international community's expectations of reform in the period leading to Myanmar's next elections in 2015. The Burmese government's reforms have a long way to go, and the US should be a long-term investor in them.
David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher in the Asia division of the Human Rights Watch campaign group