Burma Is A Bad Omen For Hopes Of Change In Cuba
Burma Is A Bad Omen For Hopes Of Change In Cuba
Cubans beware: President Obama thinks that his Burma policy is a success
and of a piece with his approach to Havana.
Burma and Cuba are half the world apart and couldn’t be more different.
The first is Asian, mostly Buddhist but with a beleaguered Muslim
minority, and has a population of 50 million. Cuba is in the Caribbean,
mainly Catholic but with syncretic, African-influenced rites practiced
by some parts of the population, and has only 11 million people.
In one way, however, the two nations are tied at the hip: both are
corrupt dictatorships run by generals to whom the Obama has thrown a
life line by normalizing relations and halting many sanctions.
And with both, the Obama Administration is asking for nothing in return.
It’s all part a curious foreign policy approach that the President
described with some detail at a White House meeting Monday with a group
of 75 members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. According
to the President, Burma, Cuba and Iran are foreign policy successes.
The President explained to his audience that transitions from military
rule to democracy by some Southeast Asia nations had offered an example
to Burma (which he invariably calls Myanmar, the name the generals gave
it in the 1990s) as it prepares for elections in November.
“That, I think, created more space within Myanmar, and President Thein
Sein, to feel that this is possible,” said Obama of the
“I think the people of Myanmar deserve the credit for this new opening,”
he said, apparently believing that they are in charge of their own fate.
But only up to a point; he himself deserves some recognition: “But my
visit there didn’t hurt, in trying to reinforce the possibilities of
freedom for 40 million people,” he added. The President visited Burma in
2012 and again last November.
It was all part of the successful diplomatic legacy Mr. Obama said he
will leave behind after his two terms in office.
“People don’t remember: when I came into office, the United States in
world opinion ranked below China and just barely above Russia. But
today, once again, the United States is the most respected country on
earth,” the President boasted.
“Part of that,” he added, “is because of the work that we did to
re-engage the world. It’s the reason why we’re moving in the direction
of normalizing relations with Cuba and the deal what we’re trying to
negotiate with Iran, (and), you know, our efforts to help encourage
democracy in Myanmar.”
That Burma is included with Cuba in the list of what re-engagement hath
wrought confirms, however, what I and others have written: that the
Administration’s Cuba policy would lead at best to a Caribbean version
of the transitions we have seen in China, Vietnam and Burma—which
amounts to little political change at all. As opposed to the East
European transitions, where democracy and free markets triumphed, in the
Asian models members of former regimes remain in charge, are dedicated
mostly to enriching themselves and denying their people freedom.
Corruption reigns in Burma, with Transparency International rating it
156 out of 175 countries in its Corruption Perception Index. The
Heritage Foundation gives it an overall rating of 161 in a list of 178
in its Index of Economic Freedom.
As for “the possibilities of freedom,” Burma’s former generals are
firmly in charge and are set to retain power after the elections, which
many observers believe will not be fair. The Constitution gives the
military an automatic 25% of parliament, granting an effective veto on
The opposition leader who has won elections but has never been able to
lead the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, will not be allowed to run. The
Constitution bans people with close relatives who are foreign to run for
parliament, and Suu Kyi’s late husband was British.
Suu Kyi says the Constitution is “unfair, unjust and undemocratic,” but
she also reserves criticism for President Obama’s approach. Two months
ago she told Reuters that President Obama’s praise for the Burmese
government “makes them more complacent.”
“The United States and the West in general are too optimistic and a bit
of healthy skepticism would help everybody a great deal,” the 1991 Nobel
Professor Sean Turnell, a Burma expert at Australia’s Macquarie
University, wrote me that Obama “talks of ‘democracy in Burma’ as if
such a thing is in prospect under existing arrangements and laws. No
democracy will be established in the elections of November (should they
go ahead), simply because these elections are already rigged. The
overwhelmingly desired candidate is not allowed to run, the army will
retain a veto over constitutional change and the dominant say in who
becomes President, while great swathes of Burma’s population are being
made ineligible to vote.”
As for the President’s trip there last November, Dr. Turnell said, “The
great change on the ground since Obama’s visit has been the very
substantial backsliding on reforms.”
Burma is ahead of Cuba, as President Obama initiated his rapprochement
in 2012, and if its fate is a promise of things to come for the island,
then Cubans’ hopes of freedom will be dashed. As former Assistant
Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it, “U.S. policy in both countries
is a figment of the President’s imagination.”
It is instructive, too, that President Obama compared his approach to
Cuba and Burma with his talks with Iran on how to prevent it from
acquiring nuclear weapons.
Mr. Obama has met stiff opposition in Congress on both Cuba and Iran.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Monday that he would block any attempt to
confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba until Havana made concessions to
advance human rights and democracy. Congress can play a similar role on
Burma, keeping the Administration honest and true to American values.
Perhaps the Obama legacy will be the propping up of failing,
undemocratic and all-around unsavory regimes, with only Congress
offering a last line of defense.
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