Foreign Policy Blogs

President Obama’s Visit to Myanmar

President Obama addresses the audience at Yangon University. Source: AP

President Obama addresses the audience at Yangon University. Source: AP

Having visited Myanmar years ago when it seemed uncertain when or if political change would occur, I find it fascinating to watch the ongoing democratization of Myanmar, which continued to unfold this week with President Obama’s historic trip and meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, one of my personal heroes.

In a generally optimistic time for Myanmar, the ethnic conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in the Rakhine state is a significant caveat to the country’s progress. Aung San Suu Kyi has come under scrutiny for not addressing the violence;  she says she has sought to “not take sides” so that she can “work toward reconciliation between these two communities.”

Given that Myanmar is actively seeking out international economic engagement, the international community can place the ethnic violence on the diplomatic agenda in a way it previously could not—indeed, President Obama condemned the violence on his trip. While governments often view international pressure on human rights issues on an incursion on sovereignty, Myanmar has more reason than most countries to be responsive. As the FT reported in October:

Diplomats fear that further violence could prompt calls from western politicians to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar.

Highlighting such fears, the state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper warned at the weekend: “As the international community is closely watching Myanmar’s democratic transition, such unrest could tarnish the country’s image.”

As Aung San Suu Kyi continues to navigate her country’s politics, interested observers are faced with the task of evaluating her transition from human rights symbol to politician with the responsibility to govern. Foreign Policy’s Christian Caryl posted a thoughtful article back in September –“Why We Give the Lady a Hard Time: An open letter to the critics of our criticism”–addressing this issue. As Caryl writes:

[Aung San Suu Kyi’s] long and tortuous non-violent struggle for human rights in Burma undeniably places her in the exalted ranks of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel. She belongs there. She’s earned it.

Burma’s efforts to find its way toward the ranks of the world’s open societies is a hugely important but also insanely complex undertaking, replete with tactical dilemmas and difficult compromises. This is precisely why FP‘s journalists have tried to illuminate it in all of its aspects, noting the dark tones as well as the bright ones.

Aung San Suu Kyi can hardly be exempt from this process. She’s a human being, too. And her new role as a democratically elected member of her country’s parliament means, more than ever, that she should be subject to the same public scrutiny as any other politician. Indeed, we’d like to feel that we honor her most by holding her to the high public standard of conduct she’s established over the past forty years. This is all the more reason to question her actions when they deserve it.

Aung San Suu Kyi has noted the struggle ahead for Myanmar, stating, “the most difficult time in any transition is when we think success is in sight, then we have to be careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success…” I wish her all the best as her work and the democratic future of her country continue to evolve.




Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.