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Obama's Historic Visit to Burma: Laying the Groundwork For Oil-Friendly Military Rule?

President Obama’s new openness toward Burma has drawn concern from human rights activists who say such overtures of friendship are "premature" due to continuing political violence plaguing large swathes of the country.

United States President Barack Obama and Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi pet Bo, the Obama family dog, at the conclusion of their meeting in the Oval Office on 19 September 2012.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza/White House


AMY GOODMAN: President Obama made history today by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma. Tens of thousands of Burmese lined the road from the airport to welcome Obama to their country, which held elections earlier this year after 50 years of military rule.

During his six-hour visit, Obama met with the Burmese president and visited the home of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was confined under house arrest for more than 15 years before her release two years ago.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Jennifer Quigley is with us, advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. And in Britain, London, we’re joined by Peter Popham. He is the author of The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Peter Popham, let’s go to you. You wrote Aung San Suu Kyi’s biography. Talk about the significance of President Obama in Burma meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, who could well be the next president of Burma.

PETER POPHAM: Well, it’s clearly a massive step, and it’s a massive vote of confidence for President Thein Sein and a tribute to the effectiveness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign over many years. There are reasons for thinking that perhaps it’s premature, because the one thing that Burma needs to do now is to enact constitutional change, to do something to remove the inevitability of generals continuing to rule in one form or another. And I think there is quite a lot of feeling that maybe the president has jumped the gun in the sense that constitutional change is not on the cards yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Quigly, you have been very critical, your organization, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, of President Obama going to Burma at this point. In fact, word was, although Aung San Suu Kyi accepted it now, she, too, originally said this is too soon. Why?

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Because it’s seen as an endorsement of the current status quo in Burma, which while there’s been limited reform in central Burma, you’re seeing a lot of ethnic conflict carried out by the military, carried out by those with racial hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority. And so, going at this point is not going to be seen as his concern for the ethnic minorities; it’s going to be seen as an endorsement of the status quo in Burma, which is military rule with a few reform-minded individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is happening in the north of Burma right now, the significance of what’s taking place.

JENNIFER QUIGLEY: Well, there’s actually—there’s two. There’s northeast Burma. There’s been a war that the Burmese army has been fighting against the Kachin ethnic minority for 18 months, and denying humanitarian access to the IDPs from that war. The other has been since June of this year, some intercommunal violence that has really turned into a systematic, targeted violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority. And so, both of these things go to show you that the Burmese military has no plans whatsoever of changing their crimes against humanity, their war crimes, their complete dominance over the Burmese population. And so, while President Obama wants to sort of reward the reformists, they don’t have control over the Burmese military.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the issue of the business community coming in, the U.S. oil companies, the gas companies, that this is the moment for that? Do you think this is premature, Jennifer Quigley? Or do you think this is the time?

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