President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar, highlighting the country’s shift to democracy under his tenure, when he makes a trip to three Southeast Asian nations this month.
Obama will meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar, as part of U.S. efforts to encourage greater political freedom in the country formerly known as Burma. The Nov. 17-20 trip announced yesterday is built around a summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Obama will meet with leaders from China, Japan, Russia, India and other Asia-Pacific countries.
Thein Sein’s decision to release some political prisoners and engage with political opponents prompted Obama to ease sanctions and authorize U.S. companies to invest in Myanmar for the first time in about 15 years. Coca-Cola Co., Unilever NV and Visa Inc. have recently announced moves in the country.
“It is an important symbolic gesture of gradual normalization of relations,” Johannes Lund, a Singapore-based analyst at Control Risks, said in an e-mail. “It gives further political support within Myanmar to Thein Sein in his reform efforts, as well as provides a signal to the U.S. business community that the U.S. is sincere in its commitment to Myanmar’s reforms.”
Thein Sein took power last year after his party won an election that ended about five decades of direct military rule. He has dismantled a fixed exchange rate, eased media censorship and held talks with opponents.
This month he signed a foreign investment bill after lawmakers removed protectionist clauses inserted in earlier drafts, clearing the way for multinationals to spend more in the country. The outcome presents a victory for Thein Sein over groups concerned that local companies would lose out as Myanmar woos foreign investors.
Obama’s visit is premature because it rewards the government at a time when human rights abuses of political prisoners remain and violence continues in the western part of the country, according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch. Clashes over the past month in western Myanmar between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya have killed at least 89 people.
“His policy of engaging with governments that are hostile to the U.S., if you look around the world, there are not many places where it succeeded,” Robertson said by phone, referring to Obama. “The one place you can really see progress is Burma. In some ways there’s a sense of vindication for that policy that’s being played out.”
With the conflict in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, Obama has been moving to reassert U.S. power in Asia. The region is a key part of his strategy to expand American imports in competition with China, the world’s second-largest economy.
The president’s first foreign trip following his Nov. 6 re-election also includes a stop in Thailand, where he will meet with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok.
“Obama also has the capacity to now follow through on becoming the first U.S. president to focus on explaining to Americans why Asia is important,” Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington wrote in an e-mail. “He is likely to pursue his self-proclaimed legacy as ‘the first Pacific President of the United States’ by trying to build a political foundation for American engagement in Asia.”
U.S. oil companies ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. are scouting opportunities in Myanmar’s oil and gas industry, which accounted for 77 percent of the $3.8 billion in foreign investment the country attracted from 2005 to 2010. Natural gas exports increased to about $3 billion last year and are expected to rise in 2013 as more gas fields and pipelines become operational, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Myanmar’s economy will expand 6.2 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said an October. The forecast compares with 5.1 percent growth in Vietnam, 4.8 percent in the Philippines and 6 percent in Indonesia.