I was in Vietnam two years ago as one of six young leaders from the United States on a delegation with the American Council of Young Political Leaders.

In a meeting with an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I asked how Vietnam balances its expanding relationship with the United States against its deep existing relationship with China. The man gave me a wry, inscrutable smile, and replied, “When you’re stuck between two elephants, you’d prefer they not make love or war.”

I’ve been thinking of that phrase frequently over the past two years as I’ve watched Myanmar grow from a repressive military autocracy into something of a fledgling democracy.

On Monday, President Obama made history by becoming the first sitting American president ever to visit the country, a recognition of the extraordinary progress Myanmar has made. It is also the latest move in one of the newest fronts between the ever-expanding geopolitical game in Asia played by China and America. Myanmar, like Vietnam, is now squarely between two elephants.

Some contend that President Obama’s visit is too much, too soon – an overly optimistic response to fragile reforms that haven’t gone far enough to reduce the influence of a repressive military junta. That regime, for decades, brutally smashed any sign of opposition, threw thousands of political activists in prison and placed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the better part of 21 years.

Though the current government is nominally a civilian one, it’s led by former generals. The military still maintains an iron grip on Myanmar’s parliament. Catastrophic ethnic violence wracks the west of the country.

Critics are right to point out that recent reforms have been broad but shallow. It is essential that the U.S. and others maintain appropriate pressure on the country’s leadership for continuing change and a commitment to a path of reform.

On the other hand, who could have imagined, when those former generals took charge two years ago, that within months Aung San Suu Kyi would be free; that within a year, she and her party would be able to run in national elections, winning 44 of the 45 seats they contested; and that within two years, an American president would be landing in the country to meet with her, now in her role as leader of the opposition in Myanmar’s Parliament? Political prisoners have been released, media restrictions lifted. Reform may be shallow, but it’s not insubstantial.

President Obama’s visit is a telling indication of how nervous many nations in southeast Asia are about China. This is a region that in the past has seen the worse side of China’s territorial ambitions. Centuries of puppet regimes, proxy wars and imperial dynasties have left deep cultural memories in the region, not all of them pleasant.

China’s fierce appetite for Myanmar’s extensive mineral and energy resources led to public protests over a proposed hydro dam to be built by China’s state energy company. Those protests convinced Myanmar’s leaders to cancel the project and take a step back from China.

Disputes over territorial claims in the South China Sea (also known as the East Sea) are an ongoing source of bitter division between China and its southeastern neighbors, leading other nations with sea claims – the Philippines, Vietnam – to cultivate closer ties to America than to their northern neighbor.

I’m optimistic about Myanmar. We live in a world where progress toward democracy in the most repressive corners rarely, if ever, happens the way it’s now happening there. No country invaded Myanmar, or threatened to invade; no new protests erupted and resulted in mass violence and death; no new sanctions were passed. From the day before the reforms to the day they began to take shape, it has been only the political will of the leaders in that country that has continued to push them forward. That they are happening at all is surprising. That they continue is almost stunning.

The president’s visit, though certainly a move in the Sino-American game of geopolitical chess, should be seen as something more. A symbol of optimism; a moment for, yes, hope; a recognition of Myanmar’s progress toward democracy. In a world too often defined by recriminations, sanctions and invasions, we should not underestimate the power of a positive example.

 

- Special to the Press Herald