Burma’s recent opening to the global economy, and especially to more freedom at home, is a rare bright spot in world affairs. But the reforms are nascent, and there’s danger of retrenchment. So it was good to see President Obama step into this delicate evolution on his visit this week with a clear message of optimism and U.S. support for continuing Burmese reform.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Rangoon—the first by an American President while in office—was not without risks. His mere presence lent prestige to a regime that as recently as two years ago was one of the world’s most authoritarian. The country’s former generals have held parliamentary elections, loosened their grip on the media, embraced foreign investment and more. The President therefore had to balance official business with symbolic and tangible support for greater political freedom.
He did the latter with a Monday speech at the University of Yangon that was among the best of his Presidency. Mr. Obama’s remarks were notable for forthrightly describing the regime’s former sins while praising the Burmese people for persevering.
“We saw the activists dressed in white visit the families of political prisoners on Sundays and monks dressed in saffron protesting peacefully in the streets,” he said, referring to the 2007 pro-democracy uprising known as the Saffron Revolution, which the junta crushed. “We came to know exiles and refugees who never lost touch with their families or their ancestral home. And we were inspired by the fierce dignity of [opposition leader] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as she proved that no human being can truly be imprisoned if hope burns in your heart.”
The President also met with Ms. Suu Kyi, the Saffron revolt’s leader, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities who have often been oppressed in Burma.
Mr. Obama’s efforts seem to have paid off as the regime released more political prisoners, signed nuclear nonproliferation safeguards, and agreed to let the Red Cross visit prisons and re-admit the U.S. Agency for International Development. So now USAID is banned in Russia but welcome in Rangoon.
In his Yangon University remarks, Mr. Obama also stressed the American stake in Burmese freedom, adding that “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished—they must be strengthened; they must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”
Burma’s leaders changed course for their own reasons—not least the desire to provide an economic and political alternative to China’s overbearing influence. But the sanctions organized by the Bush Administration also deserve some credit. Mr. Obama can now reap the strategic benefits of Burma’s opening, and his call for greater freedom left no doubt where America stands.
A version of this article appeared November 21, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Obama’s Burma Road.