Mixed message in Myanmar president′s US visit | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 20.05.2013
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Mixed message in Myanmar president's US visit

Myanmar's president has received an official welcome by US President Barack Obama. The reception represents more than a reward for the military state's gradual reform process; it also reflects US interests.

Myanmar's President Thein Sein arrives at the West Wing of the White House for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

Präsident Thein Sein Myanmar Besuch USA

Forty-seven years - that's how long it has been since the US last received a head of state from the country most still call Burma. Experts like Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) welcomed Monday's visit (20.05.2013) from Myanmar's President Thein Sein as a "historic occasion."

That enthusiasm comes despite the fact that the visit does not to have produced any significant results. President Barack Obama and President Thein Sein did not even hold a press conference during the visit.

Behind the curtains, however, the US is beginning to form a partnership with Myanmar that could be of major geopolitical significance.

Myanmar president Thein Sein visits to United States of America epa03705259 Myanmar president Thein Sein (C) arrives at Yangon International Airport, in Yangon, Myanmar, 17 May 2013. Myanmar president Thein Sein departed for his landmark visit to United States of America as the first Myanmar president for almost half a century after dictator General Nay Win's visit on 1964. EPA/LYNN BO BO

Thein Sein became the first head of state to visit the US in 47 years

China's shadow

One of Sein's first moves when he became president in 2011 was to block plans to build an enormous dam. That drew US attention because China had been behind the dam project - it suggested Myanmar's new head of state seemed interested in freeing the country from the power of its huge neighbor.

The US moved to capitalize on that moment as quickly as possible - due in part to the fact that Obama has sought to shift the focus of America's military presence to the Asian Pacific region. This was considered a counterbalance to China, which has increased its military spending by 175 percent in the last decade.

Two months after the dam construction project was halted, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood on the airfield in Burma's capital Naypyidaw - 800 kilometers (497 miles) from the Indian border and 400 kilometers from China. The location is one reason for the country's geopolitical importance, says Asia expert Bower.

"When we talk about the new paradigm that is overtaking the way Americans think about Asia and the Indo-Pacific, Myanmar is actually the connection between South Asia and East Asia," he explained.

Myanmar's large reserves of natural resources also likely play a role in the interest in establishing a good relationship with the changing nation.

A group opposed to Burmese President Thein Sein protest on May 20, 2013 outside the White House prior to his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxONLY Politik premiumd x0x xsk 2013 quer 59669657 Date 20 05 2013 Copyright Imago UPi Photo a Group opposed to Burmese President Thein be Protest ON May 20 2013 outside The White House Prior to His Meeting With U S President Barack Obama in Washington D C Copyright: imago/UPI Photo

Many still question Myanmar's commitment to reform

Obama's tightrope act

For Obama, the newfound ties to the state run largely by its military have their advantages, but the US president must also walk a fine line. On the one hand, he must support the small steps Myanmar is taking toward democratization, but on the other, he is compelled to address the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the country. Its Muslim minority, for example, continues to face severe oppression.

Bower remains hopeful, saying that President Sein is genuinely reform-minded and not just out to make sure sanctions from the US are eliminated.

"I believe it's real - a real commitment to try to do political reform first, which is for Asia not the usual way it goes," he explained. "It's usually economic reforms first."

Political opposition within the US to Obama's relative friendliness toward Myanmar has been somewhat restrained, but comes, strangely, from the far right and the far left. The left wing is opposed on humanitarian grounds, while the right has military objections. And some human rights organizations have described the visit as too soon, since it could potentially detract from pressure on Myanmar's regime to seek reforms.

Widening the crack

The overwhelming majority of American politicians, however, are sticking to US tradition and offering support to countries that show signs of moving away from an undemocratic past. But distrust toward Burma remains high. After all, President Thein has so far fulfilled just a few of his many promises. Although he has followed through on the release of political prisoners, for example, the president has also continued to blockade a branch of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Myanmar.

Ultimately, though, the Obama administration seems prepared to view the glass as half full when it comes to Myanmar. The US has made use of Myanmar's opening - the first crack opening of a door that has remained closed for a half-century - and gotten a foot inside. Now it's a question of opening the door further, which could be in the interests of both Myanmar and the US.

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