President Obama's Visit to Burma and What Happened to Human Rights

An historic visit to a country slouching toward reform


Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to ever visit Burma, called Myanmar by the military junta that's ruled the country since 1961. The president lauded reforms over the last two years which opened the country to more foreign investments and included gestures like the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader under house arrest from 1989 until 2010. Her release was among the catalysts for rapprochement.  She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, after her party won 59 percent of the vote in Myanmar's first multiparty elections in 1990. Obama, himself awarded the peace prize after being elected in 2008, made Burma an early project on democratization through engagement. But, as the Wall Street Journal notes, policy toward Burma under Obama was merely a continuation of Bush-era policy:

The Bush foreign policy placed a strong emphasis on human rights and instituted a multilateral effort to pressure the junta, using regional bodies like the 10-member Association for Southeast Asian Nations and international organizations like the United Nations. The Bush team also maintained sanctions against the junta's leaders and steered humanitarian assistance to the Burmese people as best they could.

When the Obama crew took over the State Department, they "reviewed" these policies for months—and then discovered that the status quo was quite appealing. "The results of that review," said Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs said in 2009, "were first, to reaffirm our fundamental goals for Burma, that we want to see a Burma that is at peace, unified, prosperous, stable, respects the rights of all of its citizens, and is democratic. That hasn't changed."

Burma joined the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, shortly after the U.S. imposed sanctions on the country; those sanctions continued through the Bush and Obama Administrations. The U.S. began to lift sanctions only earlier this year.   

And what of ASEAN? Burma's inclusion in the organization was supposed to help incentivize the Burmese regime toward reform and respect for human rights. As President Obama and Hillary Clinton visit Burma, leaders of the ASEAN member states are meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they've hammered out a human rights declaration (a favorite of regional and international organizations) that's been characterized by rights activists "as a declaration of government powers disguised as a declaration of human rights."