Obama’s shadow

Mizzima Business Weekly - - EDITORIAL -

When this mag­a­zine goes to print, rush hour com­mences in Nay Pyi Taw. The Chi­nese are in town with a heavy del­e­ga­tion, Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon will come to rep­re­sent the UN Pa­per Tiger, and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Modi’s at­ten­dence proves the largest democ­racy in the world val­ues Myan­mar’s geo-strate­gic im­por­tance as well.

But it is US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama who will prob­a­bly steal most of the lime­light.

Obama will at­tend the East Asia Sum­mit and the ASEAN Sum­mit. After that he will par­tic­i­pate in a town­hall style meet­ing in Yan­gon’s City Hall, flaunt­ing the in­for­mal pop­ulist style that he made fa­mous since he has been elected in 2008. The gath­er­ing is billed as a con­ver­sa­tion with young ASEAN-lead­ers, an au­di­ence that will not bother the leader of the free world with dif­fi­cult ques­tions.

The visit of the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent cast its shadow ahead over the past cou­ple of weeks. Not only was his trip the talk of the town among jour­nal­ists and civil­ians, the gov­ern­ments of the US and Myan­mar, aided by the press and a host of re­searchers, have been jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion as well to get the most out of the ASEAN talk­fest.

First, there were the much pub­li­cised phone calls of Obama to Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, still the dar­ling of Wash­ing­ton. As a re­sult U Thein Sein hur­riedly or­gan­ised a ‘ground­break- ing’ meet­ing with the vice-Pres­i­dents, the speak­ers of both houses of par­lia­ment, the com­man­der-in-chief, and lead­ers of six po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

As a sig­nal of good­will the meet­ing suc­ceeded; as a con­struc­tive di­a­logue it didn’t. There were just too many par­tic­i­pants present to yield any mean­ing­ful re­sult. It’s hard to imag­ine Pres­i­dent U Thein Sein wasn’t aware of this be­fore­hand.

The Americans didn’t sit idly by ei­ther. As is nor­mally the case when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion tries to make a case, TheNewYork­Times pub­lished another tear­jerker from Rakhine State. A salvo of Ro­hingya-sto­ries in the NY­Times ear­lier this year co­in­cided nicely with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ex­ten­sion of the sanc­tions.

Also, the re­searchers of Har­vard Law School pre­sented the re­sult of their work on Tat­madaw of­fen­sives in Kayin State. They or­gan­ised a press con­fer­ence in Yan­gon on Novem­ber 7 and called for a UN com­mis­sion of In­quiry. For­tify Rights, another Amer­i­can-run hu­man rights watch­dog, pub­lished a new crit­i­cal of­fer­ing as well.

No­body is sug­gest­ing the re­searchers aren’t sin­cere, but that the tim­ing is meant to achieve max­i­mum re­sult seems clear.

In­sid­ers say Obama wants a clear mes­sage from Nay Pyi Taw on how the Rakhine cri­sis will be solved and the con­sti­tu­tion amended. But what does Obama him­self have to of­fer?

Not much. The Pres­i­dent is limited by a Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress. The Repub­li­can Party, nor­mally the nat­u­ral ally of cor­po­rate Amer­ica, has been cham­pi­oning hu­man rights in Myan­mar since the George W. Bush era. In those days the hu­man rights record of the US was dam­aged by the Iraq Abu Ghraib af­fair and Myan­mar was seen by the deeply un­pop­u­lar US Pres­i­dent as a ve­hi­cle for pol­ish­ing up its bat­tered imge. In late July 2014, 72 mem­bers of Congress urged Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry to de­lay any fur­ther con­ces­sions to Myan­mar un­til cer­tain bench­marks are reached. Obama needs Congress if he wants to ease the (mostly ad­min­is­tra­tive) sanc­tions any fur­ther.

The jostling of po­si­tion by the US can be seen as try­ing to claw back some lever­age to be able to in­flu­ence the stalling re­form process. On the other hand, if the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment wants to wres­tle con­ces­sions from Obama, they will prob­a­bly have to stoop lower than they are pre­pared to do.

Chances are noth­ing re­mark­able will come from Obama’s visit. This is all the more sad be­cause Obama casts a shadow over the talks that are in ac­tu­al­ity more im­por­tant than the Amer­i­can PR car­a­van stop­ping in Nay Pyi Taw.

In 2015, the ASEAN Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity is sched­uled to ma­te­ri­alise. But the lofty goal of re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion seems to be in trou­ble, while the 2015 dead­line looms ever larger. De­tails re­main vague and should be clar­i­fied at this month’s sum­mit.

The fo­cus should be on ASEAN. Amer­i­can mir­a­cles are not to be ex­pected.

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