If Burmese democratization continues apace, historians will look for a “Berlin Wall moment”–something that signified the true beginning of the end for the country’s authoritarian past. They will probably settle on May 2, 2012, when Nobel Peace laureate, democracy activist, and longtime Burmese opposition dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was finally sworn in to the country’s parliament after being permitted to run in free and fair by-elections. That was indeed a powerful moment, but the more accurate choice would be September 30, 2011. That’s when Burmese President Thein Sein informed parliament that he was canceling a controversial dam project funded by China and vocally opposed by the local population.
It was remarkable that Thein Sein, who succeeded the dictatorial Than Shwe, had bowed to the will of the people. But it was perhaps even more remarkable that he told them so. “As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people’s will. We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness. So construction of Myitsone Dam will be suspended in the time of our government,” Thein Sein wrote to parliament. The suspension of the dam project not only set a precedent of accountability. It also signaled that Burma would not be an economic protectorate of a rising China–a decision that represented an outstretched hand to Western governments and, more importantly for a poor country, Western businesses.
Since then political liberalization has continued, political prisoners have been freed, Western sanctions have been lifted, and high-profile visits culminate today in President Obama’s personal visit to Burma–the first time a sitting U.S. president has done so. Is Burma ready for all this attention? The answer may be found in the answer to another oft-posed question since this trip was announced: Why is Obama making the trip at all? That riddle is easier to solve: because Burma is the one foreign policy success that can be plausibly attributed to the president’s strategic vision. Obama prefers engagement and, where possible (or necessary), sanctions. Such a policy has left much of what this White House has touched in tatters.
Neither the president’s watered-down sanctions nor his stubborn obsession with engagement have stopped Iran’s nuclear program. His major foreign policy success is the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which relied on the use of force, intelligence gained under his predecessor, and the heavyhanded dismissal of another country’s territorial sovereignty. Force worked in the effort to oust Moammar Gaddafi, but the light footprint follow-up–the president’s vaunted “leading from behind”–has been a colossal disaster marked by the murder of our ambassador there and four others.
So the answer to the second question–because Obama must cling to what may turn out to be his one success not attributable to the use of overwhelming force–also provides an answer to whether Burma is ready for such a visit: It doesn’t matter. Obama needs this trip and this photo op, and so he will get it.
Human rights groups and even Aung San Suu Kyi aren’t thrilled with the visit, the latter warning of a “mirage” of success. A day earlier, in Thailand, Obama responded to his critics by saying that “if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”
Obama should be applauded for supporting a fledgling democracy, but he shouldn’t ignore his own advice. He has been known to warn against “spiking the football”; how much more so should he avoid the temptation to celebrate at the five-yard line.