President Barack Obama is on his way to Myanmar this month to become the first U.S. leader to visit the country. This is seen as an attempt to encourage the economic, political, and social reforms the country is making.
Censorship has been relaxed and many political prisoners have been freed. Still, the trip to a nation with such fragile democracy and five previous decades of military rule comes as a surprise.
He will meet President Thein Sein and (his fellow Nobel Prize winner) opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In a statement, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Mr. Obama intended to “speak to civil society to encourage Burma’s ongoing democratic transition.” It is part of a three-part tour taking place Nov. 17 to 20 that will also take the President to Thailand and Cambodia.
The United States has a complex relationship with Myanmar. The United States last year eased its sanctions on the country thanks to its progress in its human rights record. It is clear that the United States wishes to normalize relations with the economically strategically located Myanmar.
However, Obama risks international criticism over his decision. Some experts believe he is rewarding the country too early. This is especially true after security forces failed to prevent bloody ethnic violence in the west of the country. At least 89 people were killed in the recent clashes between Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslim Rohingyas. Many thousands more have been evacuated due to the violence.
Nonetheless, in the words of government spokesperson Maj Zaw Htay, “Support and encouragement by the U.S. president and American people will strengthen the commitment of President Thein Sein’s reform process to move forward without backtracking.”