Why is Obama visiting Burma?

Barack Obama is the first POTUS ever who visited Burma/Myanmar.


1. Obama said that his visit is not an endorsement of the government but it acknowledges progress to democracy. Would you say that his trip can really influence the path to democracy in Burma or there are clearly other reasons why is Obama visiting Burma (pivot to Asia, economy, etc.)?

2. What is your opinion: Should we use Burma or Myanmar?


Don EmmersonDirector, Southeast Asia Forum, Stanford University

1. As with most presidential trips, there are multiple motives. The most immediate and important one is probably to encourage the government in Naypyidaw to continue down the democratic path. Obama’s visit should strengthen the positions of Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi, and others who are to varying degrees committed to liberalization. This is so not only because Obama is promoting reform, however. He brings with him the prospect of a full opening to the West including aid, trade, and investment that could help Myanmar modernize.

Other important motives for Obama’s trip are geo-economic and geo-political: to make sure that American businesses do not lose out in the competition for contracts in Myanmar; and to widen the range of foreign policy choices on other matters, notably security, that are available to Myanmar. The trip is not intended to contain China. But it does amount to “soft balancing” insofar as it opens policy options for Naypyidaw that Chinese dominance could preclude. And that is one of the goals of the American “pivot” that Obama’s literal pivoting from Washington DC to Southeast Asia is meant to serve.

2. We should feel free to use either name, but “Myanmar” is preferable in my view. Calling a country by the name that its leaders have given it does not imply endorsing those leaders. US practice on this is shifting. US officials who visit Myanmar tend to avoid using either name. The European Union and Australia already use “Myanmar.” My guess is that, unless the reforms inside the country are blatantly reversed, the US will eventually follow suit and call the place “Myanmar.” But for convenience, in my view, it remains appropriate to use “Burmese” as an adjective.

David Steinberg, Distinguished professor, School of Foreign Service,  Georgetown University

1. I think the Obama trip is to help solidify the progress that President Thein Sein has made.  It started soon after the Obama inauguration in March 2009 when the Burmese government sent a signal to the US of their interest in improving relations and it rapidly developed.  I think Myanmar wanted to balance its foreign policy and get help from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank that the US was blocking. I think the US is endorsing the process of positive change in that society–one does not endorse regimes in any case.

2.I use Myanmar for everything after 1989 when the government changed the name. I use Burma for the period before that, Burmese as an adjective, for the citizens of that country, and for the language. I think the US will change before too long and use Myanmar.

Sean TurnellAssociate Professor, Department of Economics, Macquarie University

1. The trip certainly is partly an attempt to encourage further reform in Burma, and to some extent ‘reward’ the reforms that have already been put in place. However, it is also about geo-politics too – an attempt to encourage Burma out of the tight embrace that China has held the country for the last decade or so. These latter efforts are consistent with the Burmese government too, elements of which have been greatly concerned over the loss of economic sovereignty to China. On top of this, for economic reasons the US likewise is famously attempting to ‘pivot’ more towards Asia. In other words, this trip ticks a number of boxes. One might hope that Obama uses the opportunity to push for further reforms, especially with respect to remaining political prisoners in Burma, and encouraging efforts to bring about peace in Rakhine and Kachin States.

2. Some of the heat has gone out of this issue in recent times. It used to be a very devisive issue, but is less so now. I expect that Obam will use Burma publicly, but could well refer to the country as Myanmar in private conversations with Burmese officials. Many people now use the labels interchangeably, and depending upon the audience. This is mainly just to avoid this issue becoming a distraction.

John Dale, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University

1. I think that President Obama accurately depicted the significance of his visit to Myanmar: it acknowledges (lends encouragement to) the steps that the nascent civilian government has taken toward the long process of democratizing some of the country’s political, economic, and social institutions. Obviously, the visit is meant to encourage further steps toward broader and deeper institutional democratization. But the visit to Southeast Asia in general also signals President Obama’s intention and desire to build stronger economic and political ties with partners (and potential partners) in the region. More politically sensitive, and what will likely not be given sufficient expression, are the human rights concerns pertaining to the increasing ethnic and religious conflict between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims that have emerged in the wake of easing U.S. and EU sanctions. We may be seeing some significant progress in Burma’s urban centers (Yangon and Mandalay), but at the expense of the regions where national ethnic minorities still struggle for political and cultural representation and freedom from violent domination. In this tale of two Burmas, we might say that President Obama will be addressing only one. And the fact is that both the United States and the EU understood when they chose to initiate the process of easing sanctions last Spring that this was a likely outcome. The choice of their timing was no doubt in part due to both political and economic interests in securing broad regional partnerships at a time when China’s own economic growth strategies have shifted significantly greater resources to Southeast Asia.

2. This is a tough question. Below I provide you with an excerpt from my book, Free Burma: Transnational Legal Action and Corporate Accountability (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Pay special attention to the second-to-last paragraph:

The name “Burma” is derived from the Burmese word “Bamar”, which also is the colloquial form of “Myanmar”. Historically, Bamar referred to the ethnic majority Burmans (or the Bamar). British colonial rule introduced the name Burma, and it remained the dominant name of the country after it gained independence in 1948, and until 1989.

In the wake of international condemnation for its violent repression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988, the military’s ruling party in Burma, The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), initiated a series of measures intended to sublimate any collective memory of the illegitimate means by which it had secured its political domination over the state. One of the first measures that SLORC took was to rename the country that it ruled – from Burma to Myanmar. The political act of (re-) naming the country is a contested issue to this day, even outside the country.

The name “Myanmar” more closely resembles the country’s pronunciation in the Burmese language than does “Burma”. Burma’s military generals argue that dispensing with the name Burma is simply another step toward greater national independence from its legacy of colonial control. Yet, many opposition groups, including those supporting the pro-democracy movement on which this book focuses, resist using “Myanmar” when writing or speaking the name in English. To these groups, retaining the English name “Burma” is an act of political protest against the ruling military’s claims to legitimate authority, including its authority to officially rename the country. In other words, using the term “Burma”, despite its colonial legacy, is upheld by some of these opposition groups as a stance for democracy. Many non-Burman ethnic groups also reject the name “Myanmar” because it has historically referred to only the dominant, majority ethnic group – thus, marginalizing the multitude of other ethnic identities embraced within in the country. The Generals argue that such thinking is further evidence of the nationally divisive and politically intrusive influence of Western cultural neo-colonization.

The name is contested by and within different countries outside of Burma as well. The United Nations (UN) recognizes the name Myanmar. But this does not prevent member countries of the UN that do not recognize the name from referring instead to “Burma” during its General Assemblies – even when the Myanmar Ambassador to the UN is present and repeatedly registers his protest. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Australia still officially use the name Burma instead of Myanmar. But China, Russia, India, Japan, and Germany, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, officially recognize the country as Myanmar.

Media organizations are similarly divided in their policies toward how to identify the country – and these lines of division do not simply reflect the policies of the states within which they reside. For example, although France uses the term Burma, the Agence France-Presse refers to the country as Myanmar. Within the United States, the New York Times and CNN use the name Myanmar, but the Washington Post and Time magazine use the name Burma.

Any author who wishes to write about the conflict in this country first must make some inevitably contentious choices about how to refer to the country. In this book, I will use “Myanmar” to refer to the post-1990 military government. Yet, to resist playing too easily into the questionable intentions of this regime’s project of collective forgetting, and in some measure as a stance for the ideals of democracy and human rights that Burma’s opposition movement seeks to institutionalize, I retain the name “Burma” to refer to the country and its civil society.

I am aware that this does not resolve the contradictions that I have raised, and risks playing into the Myanmar Government’s claims regarding neo-colonialism. But I would add that it should be clear to readers by this book’s end that I do not spare the United States and other Western governments, or their transnational corporations operating in Burma, from critical analysis of their role in sustaining the military’s exercise of illegitimate authority, and undermining democracy and human rights in Burma.

Marco Bünte, Research Fellow, Institute of Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies

In my view, the Myanmar visit has long been planned after the reforms in Myanmar have speeded up. Since the visit is not popular with Burmese opposition groups (In both the US and abroad) it might have triggered criticism which the president wanted to avoid before the elections. All in all, the visit mirrors that Obama’s  strategic attention is shifting toward Asia. It is also a sign that the US supports the difficult reform process in Myanmar, which he might not influence directly. However, the visit can strengthen the position of Thein Sein towards Hardliners within both the military and the government.


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