Fresh start ... the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, meets Aung San Suu Kyi on her historic visit to Burma last year. Photo: AP
Barack Obama will risk controversy to become the first serving US president to visit Burma this month on his first trip overseas since his re-election.
During what is likely to be a short stop in the secretive and still repressive country, Mr Obama will meet the country's president, Thein Sein, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran democracy campaigner and Nobel prize laureate.
This is amazing for us. We could never have imagined it happening.
The visit is likely to provoke great excitement, as well as concern and anger among some Burmese. His presence would be the most significant international endorsement of the Burmese government's reforms.
Ethnic tensions ... Rohingya in western Burma displaced in recent conflicts. Photo: AFP
Representatives of ethnic minorities in Burma, long subject to human rights abuses by the military rulers, criticised his decision.
"This is good for the new government but I'm not sure it is good for minorities and especially the Kachin people," said Goon Tawng, a representative of the Kachin ethnic minority based in the north of the country. "We recognise there have been some reforms but these are not deep and if you look at the ethnic areas there are still human rights violations and fighting going on," said Tawng, who lives in Britain.
The director of Burma Campaign UK, Mark Farmaner, said Mr Obama was rushing to "normalise relations" with Burma, "but Burma isn't a normal country, it is not a democracy and still has one of the worst human rights records in the world".
In March 2011 nearly half a century of military rule ended when a quasi-civilian government took power and initiated sweeping changes. The US and EU suspended sanctions on Burma this year in recognition of the political and economic changes.
Though media and labour laws have been relaxed and hundreds of political prisoners released, the military is still responsible for widespread human rights abuses and many fear democratic progress might be reversed at any time.
In recent weeks there has been renewed violence aimed at Muslim Rohingya people in the west of the country, with hundreds killed and tens of thousands displaced.
The director of the British campaign group Restless Beings, Mabrur Ahmed, said Mr Obama's visit would be "good for the US and good for Burma in the long run" even if it was bad for Rohingya people in the short term. "There will no doubt be some pressure [from Obama] on the Kachin, Karen, Rohingya too even, but [his visit] is really about solidifying moves to full bilateral trade," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years in detention under the military as the figurehead of the pro-democracy movement and was elected to parliament in April, has been criticised for not speaking out sufficiently strongly on ethnic issues.
In Rangoon, Burma's commercial and cultural capital, many were happy about the visit. Maung Zaw, a 41-year-old English teacher, said he was very excited by the prospect. "This is amazing for us. We could never have imagined it happening."
There are strategic and economic advantages for the US in any rapprochement with Burma, ruled from the isolated new capital of Naypyidaw. The country has abundant resources and cheap labour as well as a potentially huge new market for consumer goods. It is also strategically situated, and grew close to China during decades of isolation, reinforced by western sanctions.
One reason for the new reform push may be that the army hopes to balance close relations with Beijing with new ties to the West. The trip fits with Mr Obama's broader strategic "pivot", involving efforts to reinforce US influence in Asia and the Pacific as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
In November last year Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Burma in more than 50 years.
Guardian News & Media