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Obama champions US role in Burma reform

In a robust speech to graduates of West Point military academy in New York on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama pointed to “American leadership” as a driver of democratic reform in Burma.

In his annual Commencement Speech, the US president ran through a recent history of US military accomplishments, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, he singled out Burma as a country which has progressed towards democracy, and boasted that such reform owes gratitude to the effectiveness of US diplomacy.

“Thanks to the enormous courage of the people in that country [Burma], and because we took the diplomatic initiative … we have seen political reforms opening a once- closed society,” Obama said.

“Progress there could be reversed,” the US commander-in-chief warned, “but if Burma succeeds [in establishing democracy] we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot — American leadership.”

Dr Thaung Tun is former UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an organisation that existed for 22 years as a US-based alternative Burmese government. He believes the US is not entitled to take too much credit for Burma’s economic turnaround.

“The reform process in Burma can be credited to domestic actors in their negotiations with the regime,” Thaung Tun told DVB on Thursday.

“However the ‘carrot and stick’ approach employed by the US government in its relationship with Burma has been successful,” Thaung Tun conceded.

In a speech that characterised the US military as the “strongest advocate for diplomacy and development” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama hailed the different track taken by the US in Burma. The US president insisted that “We’re now supporting reform and badly needed national reconciliation through assistance and investment, through coaxing and, at times, public criticism.”

The American “stick” was revisited earlier this month. Citing ongoing human rights violations in ethnic minority areas, the US extended the “National Emergency” situation in Burma for another year. The status imposes a block on US businesses or individuals investing with Burmese nationals associated with the repression of the democracy movement.

However since the majority of US sanctions against Burma were dropped mid-2012, the government has been generous when it comes to “carrots”.


The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are so far responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in Burma since 2012, when reforms ushered in a slew international investors. The two major international financial institutions have been at the forefront of US financial engagement with the former pariah state, having supported a diverse range of development projects, agricultural grants to luxury hotels and education projects.

Obama highlighted the work of the World Bank and the IMF in his West Point speech as “force multipliers” for the United States in the international arena, in the absence of exercised military might. However, those institutions are “not perfect” Obama conceded.

Washington-based rights group US Campaign for Burma (USCB) shares that view. The rights group’s policy director, Rachel Wagley, noted in an article for DVB earlier this month that:

The Bank’s financial commitment to Burma has so far outpaced its commitment to caution and poverty alleviation,” and that “Bank staff on the ground have displayed negligible interest in Burma’s political, legal and economic situation.”

Noting that the US remains at the forefront of the thaw in relations between Burma and the international community, Mya Aye of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society civil network warned that the reform process is far from over. “The undemocratic 2008 Constitution indicates that the military is still in control in Burma,” Mya Aye said. “Reforms are a long way from absolute.”

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK seconds this assertion. “America has led the world in endorsing a sham process, a transition from direct military rule to authoritarian regime rather than democracy.”

As human rights violations continue to be alleged in Burma, Farmaner believes that the US is, in fact, impeding that road to democracy.

“If anything, President Obama has undermined reform in Burma by lifting pressure too quickly and so reducing a key incentive for reform,” Farmaner said on Thursday.

“The US might not have fired a shot, but the Burmese army certainly has.”



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