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Two years ago, Myanmar was under strict U.S. sanctions for its harsh treatment of dissidents and democracy advocates. Today, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma. The trip has been widely interpreted as recognition of rapid political changes taking place in the country. But many human rights groups say the trip is premature. We explore the issues at play in evolving U.S.-Myanmar relations.
- Michael Green Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the hazards of reverse brain drain, how our broken immigration system may be pushing highly skilled immigrants back to their countries of origin. But first, today, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian nation of Burma, also known as Myanmar, meeting that country's president and its world-famous dissident leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJust two or three years ago, it was an international pariah cut off from the rest of the world and facing harsh sanctions for its treatment of dissidents and human rights activists. But over the last two years, the government has released political prisoners and initiated elections and surprised many of its long-time critics.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's an emerging relationship with major strategic implications for the U.S., given Burma's abundant natural resources and its proximity to emerging powers like China, India and Thailand. But some human rights groups criticize the president's trip as premature. Joining us is Michael Green, senior vice President for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He joins us by phone. Michael Green, welcome.
MR. MICHAEL GREENThank you.
NNAMDIThis country was largely cut off from the outside world for decades, and for much of their time, it's been something of an enigma to outsiders. We don't even know exactly what to call it. The U.S. government officially calls it Burma, the country's government calls itself Myanmar, and even President Obama seems to be trying to have it both ways. What's in a name, Michael Green?
GREENQuite a bit in the case of Burma or Myanmar. The country was renamed Myanmar by a military junta, and the democratic opposition asked the international community to continue referring to the country as Burma so as not to give legitimacy to the military junta. But, of course, now, these same military officers are moving down a path of democratization.
GREENAnd so the name is shifting. And the official U.S. government term is Burma, but you'll occasionally hear officials slip in Myanmar. I think you'll see a mix of Burma and Myanmar. And at some point, when U.S. officials feel like it's time and the Congress is on board and they're not going to reverse this change, they'll start calling them Myanmar, I suspect.
NNAMDII guess a country in transition. It's half Myanmar and half Burma at this point. Earlier today, President Obama met with the country's current president and former military ruler, Thein Sein, along with Aung San Suu Kyi who, for many years, was under house arrest. Why is this trip important, Michael?
GREENWell, the country is embarking on a path of democratization. And Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, both of whom I also met several months ago, are, in a way, joined together in trying to achieve this result. Thein Sein is a former military officer, but I think -- and I think many observers believe -- he is sincere about trying to move the country towards democracy.
GREENHowever, the constitution put in place by the military gives it only very limited opportunities to the democratic opposition, retains strong control for the military men. And there are major ethnic conflicts across the country which will be very difficult to solve without resolving land sharing and resource sharing, which means that Thein Sein, the president, will have to break some rice bowls. He'll have to convince some very powerful people to cede power and cede their riches to move towards democratization.
GREENAnd I don't think that will be such an easy thing. So the president is there to tell both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, we support you. But it's a difficult balancing act because he also needs to acknowledge that there are very difficult rapids ahead as these two leaders in Burma go down the rapids in the boat together.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Michael Green about President Obama's trip to Myanmar or Burma. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If you have questions or comments, criticism or praise for the president's visit, you can call us at 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Green, can you give us a sense of just how much has changed in that country over the last two or three years?
GREENWell, it has actually been over the last year, year and a half. It's so sudden. The government allowed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition, to stand for by-elections, and she won and is now in parliament. Although when you see photos of the parliament, she's about the only woman and one of a very small handful of democratic opposition parliamentarians.
GREENBut that was a big step. The government has released quite a few, almost 2,000 political prisoners, has relaxed press embargos and constraints on the press and has opened up new dialogue with ethnic minorities. So those are all big and important things, but about 200 political prisoners remain.
GREENAnd as I mentioned earlier, to sustain the democratization move and to resolve these long conflicts with the ethnic minorities, which is the reason why the military keeps staging these coups and marginalizing the democratic opposition, to do that, Thein Sein's going to have to deal with these resource and other issues I mentioned before. So it's a glass half-full or glass half-empty, but these are some big things that I think are enough for the president to have gone and encourage further change.
NNAMDIDespite the changes that you talked about that have occurred over the past year and a half, some people still worry that the president's visit would reward the regime while serious problems persist. Here is what Aung San Suu Kyi had to say during her meeting with President Obama.
MS. AUNG SAN SUU KYIThe most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people and for the friendship between our two countries.
NNAMDIAung San Suu Kyi speaking during President Obama's visit to Myanmar or Burma. Michael Green, talk about a little bit about the balancing act the President was trying to pull off.
GREENWell, I was one of the people who was concerned that the president should not send the wrong signals. I think he probably got it about right. He succeeded in showing the United States' support for the people of Burma and for this process of moving towards democratization. But he also quietly appears to have convinced the government to allow human rights monitors from the U.N. to come in for some reconsideration of the remaining political prisoners and so forth.
GREENSo that was somewhat encouraging. I think he probably got the balance right on this trip. Part of the problem is that the U.S. opening to Burma and the Burmese opening to the U.S. is viewed by many people as being part of a larger U.S. strategy of counterbalancing China. In a way, it is. The problem is, in Beijing, it's viewed very nefariously that the U.S. is, you know, adding Burma to the list of countries it will use to contain China.
GREENAnd that is not the case. Burma is doing this to develop its economy and its country. China is a concern, but I think the president did a pretty good job not making it look like this is all about China, that we are really about helping the people of Burma. And that was important. And I think that will contribute to what looks like a successful visit.
NNAMDIYou mentioned meeting Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi during your visit there a couple of months ago. Care to share some of your general impressions with us, Michael?
GREENWell, Thein Sein is the president, and he's something of a technocrat. He was pulling out all the stops trying to convince my colleagues and myself on our visit, as I'm sure he is with the president, that he is committed to the democratization process. And I, for one, believed him. But he also is existing or working in an environment where there are more powerful generals and there are more powerful political cronies he has to deal with.
GREENAung San Suu Kyi is incredibly strategic and articulate and, of course, is an icon of endurance and struggle for democracy. But what's fascinating when you meet her now is that she's also a politician. She's a very savvy politician, and she has to somehow work with Thein Sein and the military leaders who are trying to bring democracy but at the same time keep some pressure on.
GREENAnd that's why you heard her say, let's not be euphoric. Let's not celebrate too soon. On the other hand, if she looks like she's blocking somehow the general's engagement of Washington, she may not be able to work out a power sharing arrangement with them down the road, which she has to do because the current constitution makes it almost impossible for her to win the government in an election.
GREENSo it's got to be some understanding and compromise and confidence building with the military. And she is also playing that game very skillfully, but always trying to find a way to keep people from being too euphoric without, you know, stifling international support for the change that has happened.
NNAMDIDuring the days of the military junta, a lot of attention was focused on the regime's treatment of dissidents, but that was not the only human rights crisis taking place in that country. In fact, today, you just briefly made reference to this. There are at least 11 ethnic conflicts that are simmering within this country, including a pretty violent situation involving Muslims in the country's western region. Can you talk a little bit about how this country, Burma or Myanmar, is addressing these various conflicts?
GREENWell, actually, if you include this newest turmoil in the west, in the Rakhine State, it actually is the 12th ethnic problem they face. The other 11 are longstanding struggles with, you know, 11 of the 20 or so ethnic minorities in Burma. The ethnic Burmese are only about half the population although they control most of the power. The ethnic conflicts with the Kachin and the Karen and others in the North and East are mostly now at peace because of ceasefires.
GREENBut when you talk to the ethnic minorities who are in Thailand and so forth, they have multiple reports of attacks and land grabbing. So it may take some time for Thein Sein to eventually get control over these. The biggest problem is going to be, can he convince the powerful interests in his own government, in his own country to share resources and allow transparency?
GREENThe Rohingya are essentially immigrants from Bangladesh and the Western side of the country who have suffered backlash and violence. They themselves have engaged in various protests, some of them violent, and it is shining a spotlight on how this government will manage ethnic issues, which apparently are going to continue being a challenge even as they try to build a democratic process for their country.
NNAMDIMichael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Michael Green, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the hazards of reverse brain drain, how our broken immigration system may be pushing highly skilled immigrants back to their countries of origin. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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