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Obama Makes First Presidential Visit To Burma

Encourages Democratic Reforms

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Obama Makes First Presidential Visit To Burma

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Yangon, Myanmar, during his historic first visit to the country on November 19, 2012.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Updated November 21, 2012

From November 17 to November 20, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled through Southeast Asia, shoring up U.S. relations there. The trip included the first ever visits by a U.S. president to Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia.

(Note: the White House and State Department still tend use the name "Burma" as Myanmar came into usage with a repressive regime which the U.S. did not recognize. For now, I'll continue to refer to the country as Burma.)

The visit continues Obama's Asia Pacific foreign policy pivot which he began in November 2011. That marked a departure from a decade of Middle East predominance in U.S. foreign policy, and afforded the U.S. a chance to begin challenging Chinese ascendancy in both regional trade and defense positioning.

Obama also spoke at the 2012 meeting of ASEAN -- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Obama in Burma

On November 19, Obama made history as the first president to visit Burma, meeting with both President Thein Sein and with Aung San Suu Kyi, an advocate of democracy in Burma and, for the last year, a member of the country's parliament. Suu Kyi was a political prisoner, at times under house arrest, for her democratic protests.

The U.S. did not have normalized relations with Burma for fifty years. In late 2011, with Suu Kyi's legal election and Thein Sein pushing for democratic reforms, Obama began reopening relations with the country. He dispatched Clinton to Burma in December 2011 to see whether normalized relations were possible.

Obama is an unabashed admirer of Suu Kyi, and he welcomed her to the White House in September 2012.

Obama's "Burma Doctrine"

Obama spoke at Burma's University of Yangon on November 19. His speech, when broken down, is essentially a Obama's doctrine on the importance of Burma to U.S. positioning in the Asia Pacific and the importance of democratic reforms.

The second paragraph of Obama's speech is telling. "I came here because of the importance of your country," said Obama. "You live at the crossroads of East and South Asia. You border the most populated nations on the planet. You have a history that reaches back thousands of years, and the ability to help determine the destiny of the fastest growing region of the world."

Geographically, Burma sits between India and China -- indeed between two huge populations and in the fastest growing region in the world. That's exactly where the U.S. wants to be, both economically and politically.

Obama reported that the U.S. has loosened old sanctions on Burma and lifted its ban on U.S. companies doing business in Burma. He also said the U.S. is resuming foreign aid to Burma. All of that helps pry Burma away from the Chinese sphere, and it can help speed the progress of democratic reforms.

"As more wealth flows into your borders, we hope and expect that it will lift up more people," said Obama. "It can't just help folks at the top. It has to help everybody. And that kind of economic growth, where everybody has opportunity -- if you work hard, you can succeed -- that's what gets a nation moving rapidly when it comes to develop."

A Civics Lesson

Obama also gave Burma a primer on western democracy, hoping to encourage the country to continue its reforms. He based his "lesson" on Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous four freedoms speech in which he said Americans have the basic right to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Essentially, Obama said that citizens of Burma the right to express themselves openly through voting; that they have the right to worship without fear of ethnic or factional reprisals; that they have the right to participate in the economic growth of a reformed country; and they should have no fear of a future of beneficial change.

Conclusion

That's a lot, and it befits a college professor (which Obama has been). In the end, Obama promised Burma that "the United States will work with any nation, large or small, that will contribute to a world that is more peaceful and more prosperous, and more just and more free. And the United States will be a friend to any nation that respects the rights of its citizens and the responsibilities of international law."

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