This week’s landmark visit by United States President Barack Obama will seek to consolidate the foreign policy shift that occurred during his first term in office, analysts said.
Mr Obama will travel to Cambodia and Thailand but it is his decision to become the first sitting president to visit Myanmar that has attracted most attention, coming barely 18 months after President U Thein Sein was handed the reins of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government.
“ASEAN is the linchpin of the US rebalance toward Asia and Myanmar is a newly emerging important player in ASEAN. For years, the US couldn’t fully engage ASEAN as a grouping because of its sanctions against Myanmar,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director, senior fellow and chair for Southeast Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The US rebalance toward Asia with ASEAN as centerpiece can be expected to continue with the re-election of President Obama,” Mr Hiebert added.
But the first tentative steps in re-engaging with Myanmar took place in a March 2009 meeting between then-Minister of Foreign Affairs U Nyan Win and a mid-level member of the US State Department.
Four months later, on July 23, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which the US had previously refused to do because of its policy towards Myanmar.
“Southeast Asia and ASEAN are critically important to our future,” Ms Clinton said at the time.
It was a dramatic change in policy from the George W Bush administration, which not only paid little attention to ASEAN but also attempted to isolate Myanmar through economic sanctions and other restrictions.
“The US has basically ignored Southeast Asia until the end of the Bush administration [and the] appointment of an ambassador to ASEAN. The US’s Myanmar policy shift is the most important positive result of all US policy issues in East Asia [and was] even mentioned in the Democratic Party platform for the convention,” said Professor David Steinberg, distinguished professor of Asian studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and author of multiple books on Myanmar.
The encouragement of the reform process in Myanmar was mentioned among the top foreign policy achievements during President Obama’s first term in the 2012 Democratic Party platform at the Democratic National Convention, along with the toppling of regimes during the Arab Spring uprisings and recognition of newly independent South Sudan.
“Our historic opening to Burma will continue to incentivise a democratic transition, a deeper engagement with the United States, and national reconciliation among Burma’s many different ethnic groups,“ the statement said.
“And because human rights violations persist, we will continue to speak clearly about the additional steps that must be taken for the government of Burma to have a better relationship with the United States.”