Terrorize the Populace and Keep the Political Prisoners: Obama on Tour in Burma

So a United States President is visiting your small country with a less than stellar record (even by rather degraded and hypocritical US standards). What are you going to do? What would be an appropriate form of respect?

Naturally, you unleash real criminals on your population and keep all your political prisoners under lock and key.

I am not making this up; it is actually happening.

“Burmese authorities have freed more than 450 detainees in a goodwill gesture before a historic visit by the US president, Barack Obama. But human rights campaigners said the list of released prisoners did not include any political dissidents. Announcing the amnesty – the latest in a series that have coincided with high-profile visits of foreign dignitaries or trips by senior Burmese leaders overseas – state media said late on Wednesday that its aim was ‘to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship.’ A home ministry official told Reuters that an unspecified number of the country’s remaining 300 or more political detainees would be released. However Bo Kyi, of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said no prisoners of conscience had been freed so far. ‘All are common criminals or foreign nationals from China, Thailand or neighboring countries. We know of no political prisoners among the 452 freed today,’ he said.”

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If that is how the government builds “good will” with foreign visitors, it seems that it would have the opposite effect on the Burmese population. How would you feel toward a visiting head of state when his visit inspired the release of a bunch of criminals?

This is an opportunity for us to reflect on how much credibility the United States can have as a model of democracy. Perhaps other countries believe we have it in our own United States, but do they see us spreading it. Everyone who is mildly educated in Asia must know that our greatest ally in the Middle East outside of Israel is a despotic hereditary dynasty that names the “nation” after their own family. Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights is horrible and their attraction to democracy is nonexistent. When Obama bowed to the Saudi king, the problem was not just that he bowed. The problem was that the relationship demonstrates the complete hypocrisy we show in demanding that some governments change to please us while others are allowed to remain the same as long as they keep their people under control and do what we say. Another of our allies, the United Arab Emirates, is basically a federation of absolute monarchs.

I can understand a “realistic” foreign policy that says we must work with non-democratic governments for the sake of the national interest. But how can we do that, and then turn around and claim that Gaddafi must be overthrown by terrorist that we support through arms and money? And how can we go around claiming that we are the supporters and protectors of “fragile democracies” when everyone knows we’re not? We can’t practice “hard-nosed realism” before the watching world and then berate them for not practicing ideals we don’t practice.

And yet Obama, for all his talk about “nation building at home” (a terrifying threat if we think what was involved in “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan), is pushing for influence in countries with really bad human rights records and no real trends toward reform. Why? “One key aim is to roll back growing Chinese influence.” What for? I’m not a fan of the Chi-Coms, but they are hardly that much worse than the Burmese government. Why is it our responsibility to try to push into China’s back yard?

I can’t help but like the idea of Obama being across the ocean far away from us. But as a good will gesture to the world, maybe we should encourage him to stay home.

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