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.