THE BLOG
11/11/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

What Will Be Obama's Legacy in Burma?

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Flash back to January 20, 2009: Conditions were highly risky for reporters in Burma, so I kept a low profile when I arrived in Mandalay to conduct some interviews. Things turned hostile as I checked in at the hotel. The desk clerk had read a phone message from one of my contacts. "Who is this?" she pressed accusingly. "Why are you meeting him? Is this a local man?" My translator bluffed. He said it was someone I knew from New York. I cancelled the meeting as quickly as I could. I didn't want to endanger the contact, who was going to show me a crop substitution program in northern Burma, which was awash in opium poppies and methamphetamines. After that, calls came to my room at all hours, presumably to make sure I had not sneaked out to meet someone. Every hour or so, it was the same pattern: "Hello?" Long pause. Click. Just like a Hitchcock movie. Since I wasn't getting any sleep, I turned to CNN on the TV. And there was President Barack Obama, being sworn in on a cold and sunny day on the capitol steps. As the national anthem was played, the reality sank in that I was on the other side of the world with my bags stacked against the door for protection and feeling more paranoid by the minute, like everyone else in Burma under military rule. Burma in 2009 was a tropical East Berlin. The country was held prisoner by its own government, which had renamed it Myanmar. The generals were waging a non-stop war against ethnic minorities. Rape by soldiers was commonplace. The military had even brutally cracked down on monks who took to the streets in protest conditions. Corruption stained everything. But that bright day in Washington, the president issued a bold challenge:

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Flash forward five years. The Burmese generals did indeed move toward a "Burma Spring." Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her long stretch of house arrest and allowed to run for Parliament. Press controls were loosened. Cells full of political prisoners were mostly emptied. The economy was liberalized to welcome foreign investment. Companies raced into the opening, including Ford, MasterCard, Gap, Coca-Cola, Heineken, and Hilton. Kentucky Fried Chicken is opening next year.
In keeping with his inaugural pledge, President Obama announced the U.S. would match Burma's reforms "action for action." Economic sanctions were suspended. The president made a historic trip to Rangoon and was photographed hugging Aung San Suu Kyi like a long-lost sister. He announced in a speech at West Point that this progress proved the U.S. could win over a country "without firing a shot."

But his valedictory was premature. The reality on the ground was the military had not really unclenched its fist -- 25 percent of the seats in Parliament are held by soldiers with battle ribbons on their chests, enough to block reforms. All of the country's top leaders are military men.

As a regular visitor to Burma, I could see that impoverished people were being forced off their lands for new projects. Those who protested were arrested. Fighting still cripples ethnic areas. And drug trafficking is at such epidemic proportions that syringes are sometimes used to make change in village markets.

Restrictions on the press -- always the canary in the coal mine -- have steadily increased. Four journalists and their editor were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for reporting on what appeared to be a chemical weapons facility. Another reporter covering military conflicts died in army custody. The Ministry of Information is suing a newspaper for printing criticism of President Thein Sein.

As fate would have it, President Obama is on his way back to Burma at this critical moment. After painful mid-term losses, he is a man in search of a silver-lining, a legacy he can point to when the limousine pulls away from the White House in two years. In keeping with his "pivot" to Asia, he is in Asia this week. After the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in China, he is attending the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN meeting in Burma.

President Obama's focus on the region is essential, yet Burma will present unique challenges. He is meeting with President Thein Sein, a former general, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The question is whether President Obama can advance his foreign policy aims -- expanding trade, increasing military cooperation, keeping China at bay -- and honor the rest of that 2009 inaugural address? He promised to carry forward the Founding Fathers' ideals of rule of law and rights of man. "Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake," he said.

Those words will be put to the test this week. Will he mention to the much-persecuted Rohingya people by name? Will he speak up for freedom of the press? President Thein Sein is supporting bans on interfaith marriage -- will President Obama risk offending his Buddhist hosts by supporting religious freedom?

Key administration officials say President Obama will speak up on human rights, but let it be known that it would not be a deal-breaker if the government continued blocking Suu Kyi from the presidency. Yet how could the administration say the 2015 elections are free, fair, and credible if the main opposition leader is barred from leadership?

An independent investigation by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School has just been released documenting war crimes in Eastern Burma by troops commanded by Burma's powerful interior minister and two other senior officials. The report alleges that civilians were tortured and killed in the ethnic areas as part of a policy of forced displacement. Will Obama raise concerns about military abuses?

How the president handles those questions may show whether the Obama administration is more concerned about China long-term than promoting ideals at the moment. The U.S. has been using business investment in Burma as a flying wedge to gain ground against China, which dominated investment in Burma while the U.S. sanctions kept Americans out. The U.S. now is trying to work with the generals, even though they have been dragging their feet on reforms, rather than risk pressing them back into China's arms.

That may be real-politick, but it would be a sad footnote to the inaugural address I remember so vividly. Engagement, yes. Enabling more repression, no.

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Rena Pederson, is author of "The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation," to be published by Pegasus Books in January 2015.