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Obama’s Burma dilemma

This morning, Barack Obama will become the first sitting US president to set foot in that magical, but catastrophically misgoverned nation Myanmar.

Coming less than two weeks after he won re-election, there are many aspects to Obama’s odyssey that have been glossed over in the euphoria his trip has engendered around the world.

Let us consider three of them, two portentous and one which is less so, but which still reveals much about how American domestic interests are the driving force behind this brief Southeast Asian sojourn.

Having arrived in Bangkok yesterday, Obama is flying from Siam to Burma today. At least, that’s what Washington would presumably like to say.

But it must settle for announcing that he is going from Thailand to Burma – only half as good, or half as daft, depending on your point of view.

The US frowns, rightly, on military dictators arbitrarily changing the names of countries, as, for example, Field Marshall Plaek Pibulsongkram did in 1939 when he dumped Siam in favour of Thailand.

The Burmese generals did the same in 1989 when they nixed the British imperial name Burma and adopted the name of the country in its native language, Myanmar.

Time heals all wounds, however, and Thailand is now almost universally accepted, even in the West.

Myanmar is taking more time and while most governments and even sober organs like the Economist and the New York Times have switched to the new name, Obama’s administration has not.

Its deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, said last week: “It is the continued US policy that we refer to Burma.”

Well, it is the continued policy of some troglodytic people to use Peking, Madras, Ceylon and Batavia. Good luck to them.

But when you are seeking to engage a crucial potential ally, it is hardly smart strategy to refer to it by a disparaged old colonial name that embraces only the Bamar majority and excludes all the minorities.

Still, let’s move on and see if Obama fares any better in handling the plight of one of those minorities, the Rohingya Muslims in the country’s eastern Rakhine State, who have been subjected to appalling violence.

As his man Rhodes noted, there have been “hundreds of deaths and more than 32,000 displaced just in the most recent episode”.

Sadly, it is no surprise, for the fact is most of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority dislike their Muslim compatriots and would be happy to get rid of the lot of them.

Rhodes said that Obama “will be addressing the broad context of ethnic reconciliation” and the recognition of the Rohingyas and the welfare of all Buddhists, Muslims and others in Rakhine.

Well, fine and dandy, and let’s wish him well and not be too cynical.

Instead, let’s consider our third and most important point: how is he going to get the charismatic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to support him in this endeavour?

Given her ambivalent statements so far, it is going to be tough.

For Suu Kyi has her eye on the 2015 elections, and you do not win elections in Myanmar if you support recognition of the Rohingyas.

In this regard, it is worth looking back at the 1990 elections, when her National League for Democracy won 392 out of 485 seats, but was shamefully prevented from taking office by the military.

Perhaps you know how many of those 392 NLD victors were Muslims? Yes, you’re right. Zero.

The National Democratic Party for Human Rights won four Rakhine seats in 1990, all Muslims, so it can be done.

Obama might point this out to Suu Kyi and remind her that the challenge she faces is not winning the election, but promoting inclusiveness and harmony.

As the International Crisis Group warned last week: “If the post-2015 legislatures fail to represent the true political and ethnic diversity of the country, tensions are likely to increase and fuel instability.”



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