When President Obama arrives in Burma Monday for a brief visit, he will have to walk a fine line. He wants to bask in a foreign-policy success, the restoration of relations with the once-outcast nation, but he risks highlighting how he’s been duped by a predatory military dictatorship that still holds all the meaningful levers of power. The obvious sign that Burma's generals feel they can toy with Obama is that they pledged to release all of some 300 remaining political prisoners for his ground-breaking visit, but instead have freed only 452 common criminals.
Having prematurely suspended most sanctions on Burma, Obama has left himself bereft of the most valuable cards he might otherwise play in his talks with Thein Sein, the retired general who now wields power as a civilian president in a business suit. But the military rulers who stand behind the reformist president retain nearly all their cards. Their bogus constitution accords them control of Parliament and the government, leaves their gargantuan holding companies in possession of the economy's commanding heights, and prevents any civilian authority from overseeing the army's budget, its brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities, or its relations with North Korea and China.
The partial democratic reforms Burma's generals have permitted may seem, at first glance, to herald a successful, bipartisan use of US sanctions to redirect a despotic regime onto the path of popular sovereignty and respect for human rights. But as things now stand, the only certain result from the suspension of sanctions is that American companies have been freed to join a gold rush of international corporations competing to exploit Burma's considerable natural resources.
It's nice that Obama will have an opportunity to visit Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in the lakeside house where she endured many years of imposed isolation. But his short stopover in Burma will do little to help the people of that country unless Obama makes it clear, in public as in his private talk with Thein Sein, that the generals must release all of the political prisoners they said they would release before Obama arrived.
Obama should also call for a genuine democratic constitution, an end to corrupt land confiscation by the generals and their cronies, an independent judiciary, true rights of free speech and a free press, and an end to the persecution of ethnic minorities that comprise up to 40 percent of Burma's population. Obama should make a particular point of calling on Burma's authorities to allow international humanitarian aid for Rohingya Muslims who have been the victims of pogroms and ethnic cleansing in a region of southeastern Burma.
Burma went unmentioned in the recent presidential debates. But what happens in that unhappy country over the next few years may go a long way toward determining the success or failure of Obama's vaunted "pivot'' to Asia. The president needs to play the cards remaining in his hand the right way — to shepherd Burma into the camp of Asian democracies.