Obama Burma Trip: 3 Key Goals for the President

Thirteen days after a historic re-election, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar in his ongoing trip to Asia. Obama has emphasized during his campaign, and in key debates, his commitment to a closer relationship with Asian allies — in what many policymakers have termed the “Asian pivot.”. The Obama Administration is likely aiming to add Myanmar to its list of allies in the region with his upcoming meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Here’s a list of other possible issues that may be on the discussion table in Yangon:

1. It’s the Economy, Stupid: Obama is definitely going to talk economics and discuss the progress of sanctions with Daw Suu Kyi. In a recent speech at the Singapore Management University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summarized the Obama Administration’s foreign policy priorities for the second term, noting the importance of the “economics of power and the power of economics”:

“Across the world, increasingly, economics are shaping the strategic landscape … for the last decade, the U.S. focused enormous time, resources and attention on a war in Iraq that is now over and a war in Afghanistan that is now winding down … Responding to threats will of course be central to [the U.S.’] foreign policy, but it cannot be our foreign policy.”

Clinton also highlighted the importance of using economic solutions to resolve current strategic challenges posed by states like Myanmar, explaining that the costs of ongoing economic sanctions and the potential benefits from the lifting of these sanctions could spur progress on political and human rights reforms in the country. In turn, trade with Myanmar could boost U.S. exports and provide a new market and hinterland for U.S. companies.

2. A success story for the books? Obama is likely to offer assistance on ongoing sectarian tensions in Myanmar, especially in the Rakhine state. The U.S. badly needs a success story to balance its recent lackluster attempts at negotiation and intervention. The economic and physical damage caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, coupled by a continued instability in Libya, Syria and neighboring countries following the Libyan intervention post-Arab Spring, and the recent death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi are all fresh scars in the memory of the U.S. electorate.

This has made it difficult for officials to justify their continued involvement in the domestic politics of other countries to the electorate, much less to the international community and the nations the U.S. is involved in. 

Being able to resolve longstanding sectarian tensions over the persecution of the minority Rohingya tribe in Rakhine state, and simmering unrest in the Shan and Kachin states, might just be the success stories the U.S. needs to continue justifying its strong presence in the Asian region.

3. Political reforms: While Aung San Suu Kyii has officially been elected as the leader of Myanmar, the reality is that the country remains in transition, with former military autocrat Thein Sein still holding some power as president. While Thein Sein was viewed as a moderate and reformer in the post-junta era in Myanmar, he still represents remnants of the old, insular regime.

Obama could possibly reiterate the importance of continuing current reforms. If conservative elements of government regain control and revert to past policies, then all the progress on the human rights and democracy front can easily be undone.