Insights and Analysis

Obama’s Trip to Burma Makes History

November 14, 2012

By John J. Brandon

On November 19, Barack Obama will visit Burma (also known as Myanmar). History will be made as Mr. Obama will be the first U.S. president to ever visit the country. But he won’t be the first Obama.


Obama’s visit to Burma will be the first by a U.S. president, and comes at a time of remarkable change in the country. Photo/Geoffrey Hiller

The president’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, reportedly served in Burma during World War II with the 11th (East Africa) Division, which was part of the British 14th Army advance down the Chindwin River in the battles of Miektila and Mandalay. The Chindwin River was a major barrier for the Japanese invading India, as well as for the Allied Forces trying to occupy Burma. Today, Meiktila is home to the Burma Air Force’s Central Command.

But even the most astute Burma-watchers would never have imagined Barack Obama visiting Burma as part of his trip representing the United States at the East Asia Summit in 2012. For 50 years, under successive military governments, Burma had one of the most repressive governments and its human rights record was abhorrent. Until recently, U.S.-Burma relations were severely strained.

But over the past 18 months, change under the President U Thein Sein government has been impressive – thousands of political prisoners have been released, peaceful demonstrations have been allowed, ceasefires with minority armies have been commenced (the Kachin being an exception), and press censorship has been abolished, among others. Few could have predicted a year ago that Nobel Laureate and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would have been elected to the national parliament and be allowed to visit the United States and receive the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda. President Thein Sein has often said that his government is committed to political and economic reform despite the reform process being both “complex and delicate.” With Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement, the U.S. has lifted most economic sanctions in an effort to bolster President Thein Sein and his reformist allies.

There are still concerns about Burma’s trajectory, and President Obama is not without his critics who believe his visit to Burma is too early. Troubling sectarian clashes in Rakhine state have left 180 people dead since June and displaced more than 110,000, and government efforts to manage the situation have attracted international criticism. Fighting also continues between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army. Although ceasefires have been negotiated with other minority groups, these ceasefires are fragile. National reconciliation is the most critical challenge if Burma is to achieve long-term stability and genuine democratization.

Seven decades ago, President Obama’s grandfather’s service in the British army helped liberate the people of Burma from Japanese occupation. That liberation helped spur Burma’s independence from Great Britain. But sadly, misguided policies under successive governments never enabled Burma to achieve its rich potential.

Although President Obama’s visit to Burma will be brief, it will be tremendously significant as it is meant to recognize and encourage democratic reforms that all the nation’s people have wanted for so long and richly deserve.

In late September, The Asia Foundation hosted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at its headquarters in San Francisco. Watch a video of the event.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


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