U.S. President Barack Obama will make an historic trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar, next week, but there are no signs that the Burmese government will announce any new concrete reforms or that the president will bring back any deliverables from his visit to the former pariah state.
Human rights activists, leaders of the Burmese exile community, and even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have expressed concerns that the first visit of a U.S. president to Burma is coming too early in the country's incomplete and fragile reform process and that the Obama administration has failed to use the occasion to push for new reforms from the Burmese government, which is still engaged in bloody clashes with ethnic minorities, has not released all of its political prisoners, and has an economy that is opening but still heavily favors the military.
At an event Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained that the point of the president's trip is not to secure new reforms right now, but rather to show that previous and potential future reform efforts are supported at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
"The president's visit at this time reflects his conviction that engagement is the best way to encourage Burmese authorities to further action. There's a lot more to be done, and we are not going to miss this moment in terms of our opportunity to push this along and to try to lock in as much reform and lock in this path forward as best we can," Donilon said. "In becoming the first U.S. president to visit Burma, the president is endorsing and supporting the reforms under way, giving momentum to reformers and promoting continued progress."
"The president's meetings, as well as his speech to the people of Burma, will also be an opportunity to reaffirm the progress that still must be made," he said. "This includes the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners, an end to ethnic conflicts, steps to establish the rule of law, ending the use of child soldiers and expanding access for humanitarian assistance providers and human rights observers in the conflict areas."
Obama will lay out some specific measures the United States intends to take to support Burma's democratic transformation and economic development, but U.S. officials did not specify what they were. Some experts believe the president will announce the further easing of sanctions against Burma, such as through an easing of the ban on Burmese imports.
But there's no indication yet that the Burmese will announce they are doing anything specific to address U.S. concerns about the progress of reform. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that there's no way to know if any of the hundreds of prisoners the Burmese government released this week in advance of Obama's visit are actually political prisoners.
"We've seen, obviously, reports about the prisoner release. We don't know, frankly, at this point how many and whether they are, in fact, political prisoners that were released," he said. "I mean, obviously, the unconditional release of all political prisoners has been a longstanding goal of the United States, but we just don't have any specific details on this latest tranche."
Senior White House aide Daniel Russel said on a Thursday conference call with reporters that the administration believes the visit itself can be a strong instrument of encouraging reform in Burma.
"It's critical to us that we not miss the moment to influence them, to keep them going. It's an uphill climb. We want to make progress irreversible," he said. "We want to show the Burmese people there are benefits to their hard work, and move some leaders who are on the fence into the reform program."
Another senior White House official, Samantha Power, said that the reason to engage is not to reward the Burmese, but to "lock down" progress and encourage more. She said there had been "genuine progress" in achieving ceasefires between the Burmese government and ethnic groups, but acknowledged violence directed against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine is ongoing and humanitarian access in Kachin state is a problem.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that Burma is a key part of the Obama administration's efforts to promote democracy and human rights.
"From the beginning of the administration, the president has signaled an openness to engagement with governments that have not had relations with the United States, provided we see those governments taking steps to change course and respect the rights of their citizens. And we pursued a period of engagement with the Burmese government that helped encourage and lead to fairly dramatic reforms that we've seen," he said.
Obama's visit will be closely scrutinized by human rights groups, many of which have concerns about the administration's strategy.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) wrote an open letter to Obama Thursday urging him to raise the issues of religious freedom and human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Burma's Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states.
"The alarming state of affairs faced by Burma's ethnic nationalities reveals how much farther Burma's new government must go in advancing reform and protecting universal human rights," the group wrote. "Under military rule, Burma was one of the world's worst human rights and religious freedom violators. Under civilian rule, it has yet to put that image behind it and fully affirm its ethnic and religious diversity by upholding human rights, including religious freedom, for everyone."
Obama will arrive in Thailand on the afternoon of Nov. 18 and first visit the Wat Pho monastery, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. He will then have a royal audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX. The president will then meet with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the government house, followed by a press conference and a dinner hosted by the prime minister.
On the morning of Nov. 19, Obama and his team will move on to Burma. He will first have a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein in the parliament building in Rangoon. After that, Obama will visit Suu Kyi in the residence where she spent years under house arrest. He will then go to the U.S. Embassy, led by Amb. Derek Mitchell. Finally, Obama will deliver a speech on the future of Burma and U.S.-Burma relations at the University of Rangoon.
After the speech on Nov. 19, Obama will move on to Cambodia, where he will attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a meeting of the East Asia Summit. While he's there, Obama is expected to have bilateral meetings with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. He'll leave Cambodia to return to Washington on Nov. 20.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.