Barack Obama

Scripted visit to Myanmar may help build presidential legacy for Obama

Despite a few awkward moments, the Myanmar trip may be key to building a presidential legacy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 3:01am

It won't be mistaken for a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of moment.

But US President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar on Monday sometimes felt like a return to an earlier era of presidential diplomacy - his aides were determined to make sure no one missed its historic significance.

The trip was carefully choreographed to highlight what the White House sees as a first-term foreign policy success for a newly re-elected president whose record on the world stage shows few triumphs so far.

There was the cautious first meeting with reformist President Thein Sein to keep him on track, landmark talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a speech at a university steeped in the country's turbulent political history.

But there were also a few unscripted parts that underscored how strange it was for Obama to be fêted by cheering crowds lining the streets of Yangon little more than a year after ordering aides to explore rapprochement with the long-shunned Southeast Asian country after decades of military rule.

On the fly, Obama decided to make an unscheduled stop at the Shwedagon Pagoda where he, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and their entourage went barefoot as part of Buddhist tradition at the revered shrine.

Even Obama's Secret Service agents were left scurrying shoeless and sockless, talking quietly into their radios, as they secured the area.

The road to Suu Kyi's lakeside villa, where she was kept under house arrest by the country's military rulers for much of two decades until her release in 2010, took Obama through a decaying but bustling city still bearing the marks of its British colonial past.

Strangely, Obama - in his statement to reporters after their meeting in which he hailed Suu Kyi for her heroism - mispronounced her name at least twice. And there was another awkward moment at the end when he embraced and kissed the devout Buddhist, leaving her visibly uncomfortable.

Obama also took a linguistic leap when - after his talks with Thein Sein - he referred, once, to the country as Myanmar, the name the former ruling junta changed to years ago. Obama aide Ben Rhodes said it was done as a "diplomatic courtesy" and that US government policy was still to refer to it as Burma.

Obama's six-hour visit - part of a three-country Asian tour - was in the planning stages for months. It was a trip he would have taken, win or lose in the November 6 election. The fact that he won gave him a chance to tout his success in pushing Myanmar's generals onto the path of democratic reform as he starts to build a presidential legacy.

The visit was part of a shift in the US focus - the so-called Asia pivot - by which Washington aims to advance diplomatic and economic relations in the region, in part to counter China's rising influence.

But it was also a chance for Obama, America's first black president who has met historians and scholars to ponder the historical dimensions of his tenure, to make a bit of history. The visit, in some ways, brought Obama full circle from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009 when he spoke of "repression in Burma" in the same breath as "genocide in Darfur" and "systematic rape in Congo".

How big of a moment it is historically is open for debate. It certainly won't rank up there with the breakthrough that president Richard Nixon scored with his visit to China in 1972 that ended decades of estrangement.

But if the reforms stick, Obama can expect high marks for the opening to Myanmar.