Air Force One touched down in Rangoon on Monday morning, making Barack Obama the first U.S. President to ever visit the small, controversial country of Myanmar. The visit comes at the tail end of a tumultuous and violent series of decades of totalitarian rule in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, that was marked by widespread reports of human rights violations, running the gamut from slave labor to genocide. In the past few years, the country's been undergoing the slow transition to democracy, and it hasn't always been a smooth one. Nevertheless, Barack Obama wants the United States to be the country that shows them the way, sending a signal to the region that America is ready not just to stand up for but spread its ideals in Asia. And that's exactly why Obama's six hours in Myanmar is a big deal.
On one hand, you have to consider that Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar is a big deal, because it's a big deal for the people of Myanmar. The country's really been to hell and back over the past fifty years, from the time the military took control in 1962 coup d'etat to when the government began radical reforms, including a new constitution in 2008. Under military rule, soldiers regularly kept sex slaves; free speech was a fantasy; forced labor was a regular occurrence. Things are slowly improving, but the country still has a long ways to go. In the past two weeks alone, violence between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists has killed at least 89 and displaced an estimated 110,000.
Human rights advocates say that Obama's visit sends a strong message of approval to the country's leaders but perhaps at the wrong time. "The ruling elites have been waiting for this moment since they came into power nearly two years ago," Zaw Nay Aung, an exiled Burmese activist, told the International Herald Tribune. "The U.S. approval of the country's reform process has been one of the core political objectives that the regime has tried to secure since transitioning into power." Zaw Nay Aung added that it was "a disgrace for the U.S. president to make such a historic trip to Burma while hundreds of political prisoners still remain in jails."
It's unclear if Obama has the luxury of waiting for everything to be okay in Myanmar. It might never be, for one thing, but it might also rob him of an opportunity to make a key ally in the region. The president told the press that his visit "is not an endorsement of the Burmese government," the night before his flight to Myanmar. "This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw," said Obama. "Change can happen very fast if a spotlight is shone on a country and the people there start believing that their voices can be heard," he said. "And one thing we can do as an international community is show the people of Burma that we're listening to them, we care about them. And this visit allows me to do that in a fairly dramatic fashion."
Then there's the China factor. China is a longtime ally of Myanmar and has sent it a good amount of military aid over the years. "But some in Myanmar fear that China is taking advantage of its wealth of natural resources, so the country is looking for other partners to help build its nascent economy," explains Julie Pace from the Associated Press. Indeed, Obama's assertive charge into Myanmar is part of a larger effort to put Asia front and center in the foreign policy plan for his second term. This is the same Obama that bragged on the campaign trail about boosting with other countries in the region "so that China starts feeling more pressure." The administration is isn't shy about using this trip to amplify that message.
To put things very plainly, Obama is realigning America's foreign policy so that it's not pointed only at the Middle East but also at Asia. The administration even has a name for the shift: "rebalancing. Thomas E. Donilon, the president's national security adviser, explained the idea in a speech recently. "The president's trip marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort. When the president says the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment."