Just to review, if for the past week you stuck exclusively to American media you’d probably have heard either nothing about President Obama’s recent trip to Myanmar, or saw an awful lot of this image:
Helpfully, Al Jazeera can provide you with a more nuanced look at the talks in which multiple issues are clearly at play. Obama has done a lot of work in opening Myanmar to democratic influences from namely the US but the broader world. But there’s also speculation around the world about what else will happen now that the country with the world’s tenth largest natural gas reserves has been opened up. Aside from potentially exchanging isolated exploitation for a globalizing variation on the same theme, there’s always the possibility of a close bond between the US and a democratized Myanmar to further politically contain China. As we’re still trying to extract resources from the region and contain Chinese political influence, it seems worth asking if this is just a smarter version of the same US policies that brought us the Vietnam War.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective leader of the democratizing movement in Myanmar brilliantly said, of the gains made while Obama has been in office, “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people.” With brave talk like that, from someone who’s been under house arrest almost continuously for the past twenty years, we should all have hope. But for her to provide the tenacious leadership that won’t settle for exchanging a Myanmar run at the behest of China for a Burma designed for the benefit of the United States, she’ll have to beat the odds.
Suu Kyi will have to avoid the fates of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and former Chilean President Salvador Allende. She’ll also have to overcome the temptation to avoid challenging the powerful that daunted the still lauded Nelson Mandela. There’s actually been another democratizing female politician from a politically dynastic family trying to fight against military rule in a former colony in subtropical Asia – former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who seemed to combine the worst of Mandela’s subverted democratization and Allende’s and Mossadegh’s inability to avoid assassination. That’s not a very positive predictor of either Myanmar’s or Suu Kyi’s futures.
Perhaps a better question than why some Burmese people created a mural of Obama is why didn’t they create one of her? And how does that bode for any emerging democratic government in Myanmar?