As the U.S. turns toward AsiaRANGOON, BURMA - In January, then-President-elect Park Geun-hye met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in what was described by some observers as a meeting between two of the most prominent female politicians in Asia.
The meeting in Seoul, at the start of Suu Kyi’s first ever trip to Korea brought together two leaders whose political careers stemmed from tragedy. Each had a father whose life was cut short by assassins. Park ultimately became president, and Suu Kyi might well do the same should laws be changed to allow her to seek the presidency of Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Burma’s constitution, drafted by its then military leaders with no doubt Suu Kyi in mind, bars anyone married to a foreigner or who has children who are foreign citizens from becoming president. Suu Kyi and her husband, the late British academic Michael Aris, had two sons who are British citizens.
Soon after the January meeting with Suu Kyi, Park would take office with, according to some polls, the lowest approval ratings of any previous Korean president. What a difference a few months makes. Approval polls after Park’s first 100 days in office had some 65 percent of respondents saying the president had been doing a relatively good job.
In marked contrast, on the other side of the Pacific, virtually all major domestic polls in the United States show a significant drop in President Barack Obama’s approval ratings since a post-election and pre-inauguration honeymoon period late last year.
Obama - who, like Park, has had his own challenges with getting his appointments quickly through the U.S. Senate approval process - is having a tough time going. Indeed, he may well be longing for a return visit to Burma - the site of a landmark stop on his first overseas trip since winning re-election last year.
Political leaders, from Australia to Japan, have been eager to be seen with democracy icon Suu Kyi, encouraging political change and reforms as part of a “pivot on Burma.”
In May 2012, then President Lee Myung-Bak became the first South Korean leader to visit Burma since a North Korean assassination attempt almost three decades ago in Rangoon, since renamed Yangon, killed 17 South Koreans, including three cabinet ministers and four Burmese nationals. By some accounts, former president Chun Doo Hwan narrowly escaped the attempt on his life by Pyongyang agents in 1983, when traffic delays on his way to lay a wreath to commemorate Burmese independence hero Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, kept him out of harm’s way.
Whether Park or Obama, however, dropping the ball and reducing attention on what has been a relatively successful “pivot on Burma” would, however, be a mistake.
A Pew Research poll earlier this summer showed a six percentage point decline in approval, from 55 to 49 percent, since January for the U.S. leader. That percentage point drop is somewhat similar to declines over the early months of the second terms of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And like many of his predecessors, Obama may find it easier going abroad than staying at home to deal with a divided government. Hope and change certainly remains alive in Burma.
After having served for three and one-half years as the U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Bush and Obama, I finally made my own first trip to Burma in April, to Mandalay, as a private citizen. In early July, I returned for a second visit. This time, I traveled to Yangon - Burma’s largest city and one-time capital city.
During my time on the Board of Directors of the ADB, U.S. sanctions and hundreds of millions of dollars in unrepaid loans from the ADB and World Bank to Burma had made it inappropriate for me to travel to that nation. Those days are over now, with Japan leading the way in writing off outstanding debt owed by Burma, as well as assisting with bridge loans that will facilitate additional development assistance from the multilateral development banks to that nation.
For me, the signs of the so-called U.S. pivot to Asia were evident even here in Burma more than six months after Obama and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to this nation in November 2012. “O-Burma” a local headline had then proclaimed. The U.S. president’s visit, along with the lifting or suspension of a range of U.S. and European economic sanctions, was intended to encourage change in this once pariah nation.
Today, it is not just unsold T-shirts featuring the U.S. president that still hang in storefronts, or somewhat faded banners featuring Obama and Clinton embracing Suu Kyi, that underscore America’s policy pivot eastward. Though far from as ubiquitous as the Toyota vehicles that line the streets or of growing numbers of Samsung phones or LG products, growing U.S. engagement can now be seen in the form of Coca-Cola billboards, American teachers and volunteers, and numerous U.S. and European business leaders and delegations, hungry for the opportunity that beckons in the nation of some 60 million people.
And therein lies a critical insight for Washington. Whether in Seoul or Yangon, the U.S. pivot to Asia - though rebalance is the preferred word these days - must go beyond defense and diplomacy and encompass a business, educational and cultural pivot as well. That is as true about the U.S. presence in Korea as it is in newly emerging Burma.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Brunei to attend an Asia security forum, as well as to help co-chair U.S.-Southeast Asian ministerial meetings, was certainly welcome news for a region concerned about China’s growing assertiveness and questioning U.S. commitment and focus amidst the latest leaks, budget discord and alleged scandals emerging from Washington.
Yet, while Korea, and much of Southeast Asia may well quietly welcome continued strengthening of U.S. defense and diplomatic engagement in Asia, there also remains the hope that the U.S. presence will be extended in different ways, including through educational program and cultural exchanges.
In Burma, as in much of Asia, the recent visits of leaders, whether a U.S. president or secretary of state, or even a Korean president, are commemorated in framed photos and newspaper clippings, and in the memories of the privileged few lucky enough to have met them. To ensure a more lasting impact, follow-up will be critical in areas that take place increasingly at the everyday people-to-people and business-to-business levels.
There remains time to take stock of the so-called U.S. pivot, and to rebalance the “rebalance.” This will mean much more than a bunch of new programs and rhetoric, and instead more substantive policy efforts and investments that also encourage greater U.S. business, educational and cultural involvement and ties in the region. That is not just in the United States’ interest but also in the interests of Korea and others working toward a freer, and more peaceful and prosperous region.
At her meeting with Suu Kyi, Park is reported to have said, “I hope that we can work together to establish a freer and happier South Korea and Myanmar, as well as in Asia and the world in the future.” Suu Kyi in turn said she hoped Burma could also be in a better position to help advance peace and prosperity not only in her country, but also around the world.
Change has begun in Burma, though important and critical concerns remain about human rights and the increasing religious and ethnic unrest in that nation. There will be the inevitable setbacks in engagement there and elsewhere in Asia, and there will be the equally inevitable rises and falls in approval ratings and poll numbers of political leaders pushing such changes. Yet, that is no reason to step back from a more robust and balanced strategy for American, as well as Korean, involvement in Burma that goes beyond defense and diplomacy and furthers not just economic growth but also democracy, freedom and human rights.
South Korea has benefited from a freer, more democratic society since the days of Park’s father. And so too can Burma.
*The author, former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (2007-10), is a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC, and a member of the Board of World Education Services and Community & Family Services International.
by Curtis S. Chin