President Barack Obama's visit to Burma last week lasted just six hours. He did not visit Naypidaw, the political capital -- reportedly at the request of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who initially opposed the visit as coming too soon in Burma's tentative reform process. Instead, President Obama met with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon.
Only as Obama arrived did the government announce it would submit to inspections of its nuclear facilities, a step meant to address concerns over Naypidaw's dealings with North Korea. The government also released several dozen political prisoners and agreed to a process for reviewing the cases of others by the end of the year. "It's like they're using political prisoners as political bargaining chips," Letyar Htun, a former student activist told The Irrawaddy after his release from Tharrawaddy prison.
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These steps, although welcome, didn't justify a presidential visit, unless the administration's top priority in Burma has shifted, from supporting a democratic transition to enlisting it in the "pivot," the administration's plan to reorient U.S. foreign policy towards Asia and away from the Middle East. An aide's comments about the pivot and the president's "foreign policy legacy" suggest that is the case. The president's visit, following suspension of sanctions, and the return of an ambassador to Rangoon makes a revival of ties with Burma's armed forces the administration's next priority.
Relationships with militaries like Burma's often bear the burdens of unrealistic expectations by civilian and defense officials eager to justify them for strategic reasons. In Burma's case, that would be a mistake. Washington has shunned Burma's military, known as the Tatmadaw, since it crushed the 1988 student-led democracy protests and nullified the 1990 election results that overwhelmingly favored Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and its ethnic allies. As recently as 2010, Washington pursued a commission of inquiry into Burma's human rights abuses -- including rape and child conscription by the military -- an effort that has been abandoned as the United States inches its way toward a rapprochement.
The argument that exposure to the United States and its military is good for officers from non-democracies sounds reasonable and so far the Pentagon stresses it will focus on non-combat activities like disaster relief, searching for the remains of American servicemen who died in Burma during World War II, and engaging in dialogue.