Obama’s Burmese Gamble

ARLINGTON – The rapprochement between the United States and Myanmar (Burma) has proceeded at a blistering pace. A year ago, the two countries did not even have ambassadors in each other’s capitals. In May, President Thein Sein became the first leader from Myanmar to visit the White House in nearly a half-century.

But has Barack Obama’s administration been too quick to embrace what was, until recently, one of the world’s most repressive regimes? Or, on the contrary, is decisive US support essential to Myanmar’s fledgling reform process?

Until the recent opening, Myanmar, which gained independence in 1948, had been ruled by a secretive military junta since 1962. As recently as 2010, the regime held elections so blatantly rigged that the main opposition party refused to participate. But in 2011, shortly before assuming the presidency, Sein, a general who served as Prime Minister under the junta, began to take steps that impressed even the most skeptical observers. Unlike the token gestures of reform offered by previous rulers, Sein’s actions appeared substantive and meaningful.

One important change was the release of hundreds of political prisoners, including the regime’s most prominent opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for nearly 15 years. Moreover, Sein initiated a dialogue with Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), about a transition to civilian rule.