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Cautious Optimism Over US Policy on Burma

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On November 8, the White House confirmed that President Barack H. Obama is visiting Burma as part of a three-nation trip to Southeast Asia from November 17 to 20. The visit becomes the first ever by a sitting U.S. president.

The trip will be Obama's first international trip since his reelection on November 6 for a second term in office. The president will be joined by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who visited the country in 2011.

This could be Clinton's final visit to Burma as Secretary of State if she decides to leave the State Department. On January 26, she told members of the State Department that she would quit her job if Obama wins the reelection bid.

During his stay, Obama is scheduled to meet President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition and chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Obama will also meet representatives of civil society organizations.

The easing of sanctions, the appointment of Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell, and the visit of President Obama are a testament to America's commitment toward Burma and its people.

The pace of U.S.-Burma bilateral relations' improvement has surprised many observers and analysts alike. While many welcome the Obama's visit, there are others who criticize the timing of such high-level visit.

There are valid points to both arguments. On positive note, the visit shows the U.S.'s continued support for human rights and democratic reforms. The visit could also boost the initiatives of President Thein Sein in the midst of some military hardliners who are critical of the democratic reform process.

The visit could also provide incentives for both Rakhine state and central governments to help end the conflict in Rakhine. Obama could use the visit to urge both the government and the opposition to work concertedly for a solution. The visit could also be a morale boost for democracy advocates and other civil society groups to strengthen their activities.

On the other hand, armed conflict is unabated in Kachin state and there are thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons. The number varies from source to source, but there are still political prisoners across the country. As of October 31, 2012, there were 283 political prisoners according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Some are concerned that Obama's visit would overshadow the ongoing conflicts and that the U.S. leverage to influence the Burmese government for further democratic reforms might be weakened.

While the Obama administration should be given credit for pursuing dual-track policy that opened the door for diplomacy, one must also acknowledge the contribution of the Republican administration under President George Bush. Among others, the Bush administration successfully placed Burma in the formal agenda of the United Nations Security Council on September 15, 2006.

Recent political developments have shown that Burma has embarked on a new phase of politics. However, one should not be overoptimistic about its future prospects. Challenges and uncertainties remain -- uncertainties over free and fair election and issues pertaining to autonomy.

After its independence from the British on January 4, 1948, Burma had a parliamentary democracy until the military coup in 1962. The central government was fragile due to insurgency problems. The ethnic minority groups demanded secession from the Union when Panglong agreement on autonomy was not upheld.

Although ethnic minorities have dropped their original demand for secession, the demand for autonomy remains intact. The present government of the Union Solidarity and Development Party has reached ceasefire agreements with majority of the armed groups, but there is no guarantee of an amicable political settlement.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the present quasi-civilian government will amend the 2008 constitution to remove the inherent role of military in politics. There is uncertainty whether the 2015 election will be held free and fair. There is also no guarantee that the constitution that guarantees 25 percent of parliament seats to the military will be amended.

Under such circumstances, it is uncertain whether the judiciary branch can function independently. There is also uncertainty if the former and present military leaders would allow an impartial inquiry of human rights abuses and any possible criminal acts of the past military regime.

Despite the lingering uncertainties, there is room for national reconciliation if the central government led by ethnic Burmans and ethnic minorities cooperate. In order for mutual trust to develop, minority problems need to be resolved. President Obama should emphasize the urgency for such solution. The U.S. must understand that minority problems outweigh differences between the NLD and the military.

There is every reason to be optimistic about the political changes in Burma. However, given the nature of Burma's historical problems, there are also reasons to be critical about long-term solution.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. His latest research (peer-reviewed) article entitled "US-Burma Relations: Change of Politics under Bush and Obama Administrations" is scheduled for publication in Strategic Analysis journal by Routledge in March 2013.