COMMENTARY | In the film “Beyond Rangoon,” Americans see through the eyes of a tourist the terrible repression of a democracy movement in Myanmar 1988. Think Tiananmen Square without the cameras and images (most journalists didn’t know about it or were barred from covering it). It’s a film that gets the attention of my students.
You get to see Aung San Suu Kyi’s brave attempt at political nonviolence. You watch as monks, students, medical staff, ethnic minorities and even soldiers unwilling to kill their own people become targets of a vicious military attack. But even when it seems hopeless, so many characters in the film promise to press on, without resorting to the same tactics.
Therefore, it is special to see President Barack Obama visiting the country, the first state visit by an American president in some time (and had he been elected, I bet Mitt Romney would have made a trip as well). It is great to see Aung San Suu Kyi go from political prison to an elected politician. Can peace with the Karen ethnic group be far behind?
Normally this doesn’t make headlines. It’s not a well-known region for most Americans. The other night at trivia at the local bar and grill, I was one of the few who knew Myanmar’s former name (Burma). But here’s why it matters.
1) This can be the start of an alliance. Of course democracy matters. But this could be a strategic move. During the Cold War, we had SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), but since the fall of South Vietnam and the disbanding of the alliance, friends are hard to come by in the region. If Myanmar makes the transition from socialism to capitalism, it could be a valuable trade partner, like South Korea. After all, long ago, Burma was a wealthy county.
2) Myanmar can be an example for others. Making peace with a regime that has vowed to reform itself and taken concrete steps to do so shows every other country in the world that we will work with a country that promises to do better. Real reforms mean real respect from the United States. I hope the Palestinian Authority, the Venezuelan people, and Sudanese are paying attention.
3) We avoided a second North Korea. At one point, a U.S.-sanctioned Myanmar was going into North Korea’s orbit, and planning to become a nuclear power. That’s one more headache we don’t need in Asia.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.