SINGAPORE | President Obama on Sunday will become the first American president in more than 40 years to attend a meeting with the repressive rulers of Myanmar, marking a dramatic shift in the U.S. approach to bringing change to a regime that responds brutally to dissent, locks up journalists and political opponents, and has kept itself largely walled off from the Western world.
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar has for years played the role of skunk in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, repeatedly preventing the group from attracting participation from the United States. But Mr. Obama came to office promising to extend an open hand to rogue states in the hopes of changing the dynamics.
“The policies of the international community have not in two decades produced positive results,” said Jeffrey Bader, a special assistant to the president for national security. “One definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome. Twenty years is long enough.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in February that the U.S. was reviewing its policy toward Myanmar, saying that neither sanctions nor engagement - the preferred policy of Myanmar’s neighbors - had nudged the military rulers toward democratic reforms. The new American policy was announced in late September, described as a carrot-and-stick effort, with the U.S. agreeing to talk to the junta and to relax sanctions if conditions are met.
The outreach to Myanmar has come in a series of steps, starting with a visit by Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, in August, followed by the recent trip by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt M. Campbell, the first by a high-ranking U.S. official since then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright went to the country in 1995.
Now comes the meeting in Singapore, which the U.S. has touted as the most dramatic display of its change in policy. Host Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he expects concerns about Myanmar to be discussed at the ASEAN session, though Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said he does not anticipate any direct talks between Mr. Obama and junta Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein.
Mrs. Clinton told the Voice of America on Friday thatthere were signs of slow change in Myanmar, but that planned voting next year “will not be legitimate unless they engage in a dialogue with the people of Burma and create the atmosphere for free, fair and credible elections.”
The meeting could produce some jarring imagery for Mr. Obama, who during a debate with then-presidential rival Mrs. Clinton, said he would be willing to meet - without precondition - with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. “I would,” he responded. Mrs. Clinton said she would not. “I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes,” she said.
The potential political downside to Mr. Obama’s approach became evident in April at a Summit of the Americas meeting. In front of photographers, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez mugged and posed as he handed Mr. Obama a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” a book by Eduardo Galeano that charges U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region.
The White House tried to downplay the significance of the encounter, calling Mr. Chavez a publicity hound. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow told reporters, “I think the fact that our president shook his hand and smiled doesn’t constitute a new relationship.”
Critics of the new approach to American policy on the old and vexing problem of Myanmar say it similarly risks giving that country’s leaders an opening to obtain an air of international legitimacy. And, they say, it provides the junta something it has not earned - enhanced diplomatic leverage against its increasingly imposing neighbor, China.
“Burma sees China’s economic domination as a problem, and it might want to show Beijing it is not its only friend in town,” said Sean Turnell, who edits Burma Economic Watch at Australia’s Macquarie University. The junta, he said, has a long history of playing outside powers against each other.
Critics have also had questions about the position the U.S. has taken on Myanmar’s plans for general elections in 2010, which follow the approval of a new constitution in a referendum held in May 2008. The elections are part of junta leader Gen. Than Shwe’s seven-step “road map to democracy.”
Mr. Marciel said the U.S. has been urging longtime political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party to participate in the elections if the polls are to be seen as credible. In August, she was sentenced to an additional 18 months’ detention for purportedly hosting an unregistered foreign guest. American John Yettaw swam across the lake adjacent to her Rangoon home before being detained by security forces.
As well as being under house arrest, she is currently barred from running for office because of her marriage to a now-deceased British academic. The junta has given no indication so far that Mrs. Suu Kyi will be released, but Gen. Sein recently said that her detention could be relaxed “if she behaved well.”
John Dale, a Myanmar specialist at George Mason University, said U.S. officials may inadvertently be setting back the political opposition, which has been organizing a boycott of the elections on the grounds that, under the current constitution, they are destined to be a sham.
“The longer the United States engages in dialogue about international monitoring of free and fair elections, the more likely it is that we end up lending legitimacy to the election process itself,” Mr. Dale said.
Mrs. Suu Kyi’s party has said it will not compete in the elections without a review of the constitution. Mr. Marciel said the U.S. agrees that the constitution is flawed and was approved in a referendum that “lacked credibility.” However, he did not say if the U.S. would back Mrs. Suu Kyi’s request for a constitutional review, saying that the issue is best handled among the Burmese.
The approach will not push Myanmar toward real democratic reform, experts say. David Williams, an authority on constitutional law at Indiana University, said he thinks “constitutional reform should be regarded as a central issue in its own right. The current constitution makes long-term reform impossible for our areas of core concern - democracy and human rights abuses. Anything short of constitutional reform will be a Band-Aid.”
That said, there appears to be broad agreement that the past policy of isolating Myanmar has not had the desired effect. Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he thinks it was wise of Mr. Obama to start over.
“This is an opportunity to send a signal to the Burmese that the United States is willing to work with them, if they are willing to liberalize their political situation,” Mr. Paal said. “The U.S. has been laying down markers where we can make progress.”
One important challenge, Mr. Paal said, will be to persuade the other Southeast Asian nations to help the U.S. ratchet up pressure on their recalcitrant neighbor. A new ASEAN charter allows the members more latitude to interfere in one another’s affairs.
ASEAN counts Myanmar as a member state and does lucrative business in oil and gas with the junta, giving it some sway over the country’s rulers. But there was scant mention of Myanmar at the group’s 15th summit held in Thailand in late October. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said that “engagement is the way forward” when questioned by reporters.
ASEAN inaugurated a new human rights commission at the summit, but the body is limited to the promotion of human rights. It cannot push political reform in Myanmar, which has a junta appointee on the commission.
Bridget Welsh, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Singapore Management University, said there are “real differences between the U.S. and the junta, but discussing them directly is better than using ASEAN and China to pressure the regime and affecting the U.S.’s relationship with others in Asia.” Ms. Welsh added that it is important to keep expectations on progress in Myanmar low for the meantime.
On that score, American officials appear to agree.
“I think that we have made clear we have not changed our objectives,” said James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, in speaking about the president’s upcoming trip at the Center for American Progress in early November. “We want to see a more open, tolerant society [that] respects basic human dignity.” But, he added that the Obama administration doesn’t “pretend for a second that the dialogue will reveal dramatic results.”
“This process will take time to produce results, and indeed results are not guaranteed,” Mr. Bader said. “It has taken the Burmese military five decades of rule to reach the present unhappy point. We will need patience and persistence to alter the results of 50 years of history, pursuing a path consistent with our interest and values as we seek to do so.”