A Burmese leader will stand in the White House today for the first time since 1966. Not only does Thein Sein’s US visit cap an unprecedented round of diplomatic bridge-building that has taken him from Australia to Europe in recent months, it is also the high-water mark of his country’s return to international favour.
The US President has much to gain from such cordial relations with South-east Asia’s former pariah. Burma was Barack Obama’s first overseas trip of his second term. Why? Because he considers its shift from military lock-down to budding democracy as not only a US foreign policy victory, but one specifically his own. A more conciliatory approach to Rangoon was part of Mr Obama’s plan to “pivot” US attention away from the Middle East and towards increasingly China-dominated Asia. Between Mr Sein’s reforms and growing evidence of a different approach from China – which now faces Western competition for access to minerals and hydrocarbons – the US President considers Burma one of his more certain successes.
But the real triumph, of course, belongs to Mr Sein. And there is no denying that he has brought his country a long way in just two, short years. Aung San Suu Kyi is a member of parliament, the economy is taking great strides, and the apparatus of repression is beginning to be dismantled. The race is far from run, however. Not only have just the easiest and most superficial changes been made – they may still be easily reversed. There is also a dark legacy to be unpicked: more than 150 political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma, for all that 20 were pardoned ahead of the US trip. Meanwhile, civil war continues to rage and the plight of the Rohingya Muslims is only worsening.
Mr Obama and Mr Sein will discuss the way ahead today. Amid the pledges of support, the US President has two messages to deliver. One is that there is no place for political prisoners in a democracy. The other is that the time has come for a constitutional settlement with Burma’s multitudinous minorities.