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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - It’s time for the US to become a lot more engaged in Myanmar

It’s time for the US to become a lot more engaged in Myanmar

Here's a neat pub quiz question: Has any President of the United States ever visited Myanmar since its independence in 1948?

You might think not, given that the country has been either informally off the map, or formally designated an “outpost of evil” and thus off-limits for American officials.

But you would be wrong. Now admittedly it’s a bit of a trick question in that no sitting president has yet visited Myanmar, but a former president and a sitting vice-president certainly have.

In fact, they were one and the same person: Richard Milhous Nixon.

Yes, Tricky Dicky and his plastic-permed wife Pat first went to what was then Burma in November 1953 when he was President Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president.

And Nixon, who was always better at foreign relations than domestic affairs, had a pretty successful visit.

From Yangon, then called Rangoon, he travelled to nearby Bago and helped quell an anti-American protest by wading into the baying mob.

The demonstrators bore placards saying “Uncle Sam out!” and “Burma no place for Yankee war-mongers” and other, perhaps understandable, slogans.

For at that time, the US had just moved from ending its role in the Korean War to engineering a coup in Iran to depose a democratically-elected government and install the dictatorial Shah Pahlavi.

This did not faze the smiling Cold War warrior Nixon, who shook hands with the protesters and answered questions while ignoring a loudspeaker that blared anti-American vitriol.

Then, back in the capital, he went off to ring the wishing bell at the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda – an act that, according to local lore, meant he would return some day. And so he did.

Indeed, if Washington does not move fast in this regard, it is going to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Years after resigning the presidency in the aftermath of Watergate, Nixon appeared to hear the Burmese temple bells a-callin’ and in 1985 he revisited the Shwedagon and rang its bell once again. He also met the long-time dictator Ne Win, as well as the symbolic President San Yu.
At that time, President Ronald Reagan’s administration was on excellent terms with Ne Win because he was such a fervent anti-communist.

Regrettably, no matter how cruel and crazy they are, Washington embraces guys like Ne Win and the Shah of Iran who are enemies of its enemies.

So it’s ironic that today, for exactly the same reason, the US is embracing the dictatorial Hanoi regime because it is fervently anti-Chinese.

But that’s another story. The point here is that it is time for another US vice-president, former president, or ideally, sitting president, to visit Myanmar.

Indeed, if Washington does not move fast in this regard, it is going to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Thankfully, under President Barack Obama, it has recalibrated its policy towards this region and taken note of the changes in Myanmar since last year’s elections.

They have been profound changes, as shown by the outreach to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and by last week’s release of more than 200 political prisoners.

These steps have built upon last month’s landmark meetings in New York and Washington between Myanmar’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, and US State Department officials.

The two sides will reconvene again at next month’s East Asia Summit in Bali, when Obama himself will attend and will re-emphasise his administration’s focus on Southeast Asia.

At this summit, it is almost certain that a US president will meet his Myanmar counterpart, President Thein Sein, for the first time since Nixon met Ne Win.

It is about time, because resource-rich, strategically-pivotal Myanmar must be a key part of US strategy in this region, especially as it will likely be the ASEAN chairman in 2014.

If Washington wants to remain engaged during Myanmar’s chairmanship, it will require Obama’s attendance in Yangon.

So the next US president to follow Nixon’s example and ring the Shwedagon’s bell will probably be Obama – assuming he is re-elected next year.

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