Burmese Shrug at Obama Visit, as Beijing Shudders
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Burmese Shrug at Obama Visit, as Beijing Shudders

A portrait mural of US President Barack Obama on a wall in Rangoon's Tamwe Township. (Photo: Reuters)

A portrait mural of US President Barack Obama on a wall in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — When US President Barack Obama arrives in Burma one week from today, he will be making history as the first American leader ever to set foot in the country. But if you ask ordinary Burmese what they think of the visit, few betray much excitement.

“I’m just struggling to make ends meet, so it doesn’t matter much to me,” says Shwe Ni, a taxi driver in the former Burmese capital, when asked what he thought about Obama’s planned stopover here next Monday as part of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia.

Like many others in this city, which is fast becoming one of the region’s investment hotspots, Shwe Ni said he was aware of the imminent visit, but is just too busy to care. All the buzz about Burma rejoining the international community has yet to make much difference to him, he added.

Not everyone, however, is so completely jaded by the thought of yet another foreign visitor coming to the country to talk business or politics. On Sunday, a group of artists in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township painted a large graffiti-style portrait mural of Obama to welcome the newly re-elected president.

“We painted it to express our support for Obama’s visit,” said Akar Kyaw, one of the artists. Asked why he thought the visit was significant, he said: “We hear that the US will help Burma to improve its education.”

Evidently, however, not everyone seems to share his sentiments: overnight, vandals defaced the mural, covering it with black spray paint.

Still, said Akar Kyaw, it’s good that Burma is getting closer to a developed, democratic country like the US—far better, he said, than relying on China, which has never shown much interests in anything other than the country’s resources.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Burma is about to distance itself completely from its largest and most powerful neighbor, according to Thakin Chan Htun, a former Burmese ambassador to China who said that US moves in the region aimed to limit, but not eliminate, China’s growing influence.

“As a longtime ally of Burma, China will try to maintain its friendship with Burma even as it opens up to the West and ties between the US and Burma improve,” he said, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday.

But even if the Burmese response to a growing US role in their country remains rather lukewarm, there is still an undeniable chill in most people’s perceptions of China—something that Beijing is only now beginning to acknowledge, after decades of cultivating close ties with Burmese military rulers who until last year showed little interest in public opinion.

This has set off a frenzy of hand-wringing among Chinese intellectuals about how to counter Washington’s growing sway in Naypyidaw. In an article published by Asia Times Online, veteran Burma watcher Bertil Lintner wrote that several papers have appeared in Chinese academic journals recently suggesting ways that Beijing can improve its standing among ordinary Burmese, including a possible public relations campaign to counter China’s negative image.

There are also reports that Beijing is now telling Chinese investors operating in foreign countries to be more respectful of local customs and people, and to show some sense of social responsibility. Some companies appear to be getting the message: China National Petroleum Corporation, which is building a controversial oil pipeline across Burma, has started constructing schools in villages along the pipeline, according to a report by The Economist.

Meanwhile, China’s media is also taking a growing interest in what is happening beyond its border with its once moribund neighbor. Asked why, a journalist for The Global Times, a Beijing-based English-language daily, said, “I think it is mainly because of all the significant changes there [in Burma].”

Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, told The Economist that “alarm bells started ringing” for the Chinese over Burma when construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River was unexpectedly halted last year.

China’s mistake, he said, was to focus only on building relationships with government officials, without paying any attention to “domestic political nuances.”

If the US hopes to do any better in Burma, however, it will also have to go beyond high-profile, high-level meetings between senior leaders, and turns its focus squarely on issues that matter most to ordinary people.


8 Responses to Burmese Shrug at Obama Visit, as Beijing Shudders

  1. The Burmese Freedom Fighter

    What a great way of encouragement with a historic visit of US president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton! This is the best way in helping one under privileged society to move step forward.   Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind. 

    Burma needs helps, not blames for its lack of skills to get its dream of tolerated democratic country. America is envy of many different nations, and Burma will be very lucky to have it as its mentor in reaching its dream. Burma lacks the skills, not intelligence; with the right mentor, it can catch up with the skills required to its democratization. Thank you very much United States of America and its people for ushering Burma to its potential with helps; not blames.

    The Burmese Freedom Fighter

  2. It’s very true that the Chinese government only cultivates relationships with
    governments to curry favor in business. They only want the natural resources, real
    estate, and business. This is why ordinary Burmese hate the Chinese. The chickens are coming
    home to roost! Or, what goes around comes around.

  3. Bert is a self-styled ‘Burma expert’.  All his articles are self-supporting, self-satisfying and self-serving.  The world knows, including ordinary Burmese, which country is at war for the last decade and showing no signs of ending its ‘war on terror’.  

  4. what does Uncle Sam propose ‘COME AND JOIN THE COBRA GAMES” get it, all the US understands is Military Exercises, WAR; WAR & WAR, keep them out of Asia, S.E.Asia and South Asia.
    Where has the International Court been with regards to the CRIMES commited in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, leave alone the Middle East.

    • Yanks dropped more bombs in small Laos,( more than half still to explode now!), than all of Europe by all forces in the World War II. Plus Agent Orange, electrocution of people in the water-filled tunnels in Vietnam, peddling drugs, massacres in all countries, list of cruelty and immorality is endless. 

      But that is simply the way the Yanks are. Were and are.People like Hun Sen, buddy of Than Shwe, Thaksin, etc.,  would routinely blackmail the Yanks to use these to agitate and start popular demonstration for those International Criminal Court thingy which is  simply under US/ EU control any way.After all, this Black guy is just a part-actor serving his masters, the multinational corporations. But the Burmese are simply keen for famous people worship with no interest or understanding of what it entails, like a 15 year old in love.The MAIN problem  of the people in Burma in particular as well as all of the South-East Asian populace is LACK of KNOWLEDGE and UNDERSTANDING and overall worldly vision and true understanding of the bankrupt status of the “western” financial system and razor thin ice skating of social eruptions all over Europe and preparedness of the American governmental institutions for civil war in the United States.With the international “Media” co-opted for the international business drumming up for superficial BS that common people admire and hiding the genuinely important facts, there is desperate need for EDUCATION of the majority public in Asia and Burma in particular. Especially, because Burma still is at a stage it could be saved from the brink.Knowledge is the true power.

  5. What is Burma to America? Other than helping, America does not have much to gain. The natural resources had been emptied by communist China, and not much is left. Please be so negative. Burma can gain something by having good relationship with America and the West. What do the West gain from Thailand? Not much. But Thailand gains a lot from the West by having terrific relationship. Containing China is good for us. Because China does not care the destruction of Burma and its natural resources. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese people who live in America know best that America is not a crook like communist China. 

    • The Burmese Freedom Fighter

      Hello Tainamkawng, I am glad that you and I are on the same page on this chapter. Please do not pay too much attention to those blamers. For sure, America will be very good friend of Burma. Burma is in
      the curve of its modem history for a positive change toward a tolerated
      democratic system. Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out
      how far one can go. 

      Destiny of Burma belongs to the people of Burma. We will
      only get what we want, depending on the decision we make from a moment to
      moment. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can
      change the world. Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if
      we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the
      change that we seek. And that is how change happens: One gesture, one person,
      and one moment at a time. The Burmese Freedom Fighter 

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