By Ernie Bower
Asia generally, and Southeast Asia particularly, is undergoing a fundamental shift in governance as incumbent regimes struggle to respond to a newly empowered, massive group of voters (in some cases) or constituents who have access to information via technology and more resources than ever before. The number of empowered Asians will only grow. The OECD estimates Asia’s “middle class” will increase from about 500 million people today to 3.2 billion by 2030.
So as he lands in Myanmar on November 12, President Obama should be fundamentally committed to traditional U.S. foreign policy themes including human rights and democracy. He should talk about these goals because anyone who follows Asia knows that the incredible energy behind Jokowi being elected from outside of the traditional power base in Indonesia is the future and China’s bleeding of the democracy impulse in Hong Kong is exactly the opposite.
To be effective, the United States and President Obama need to be honest, humble, and committed to be part of long term change. All countries, including the United States, struggle with democracy and promoting the rights of citizens. No American leader should throw rocks in a glass house, but that should not deter the president from emphasizing the commitment to these themes, and committing U.S. resources to support reform.
In many ways, Myanmar is a perfect test of this tough balancing act. To be aligned with Myanmar’s future and the ambitions of the majority of its 50 million denizens, President Obama needs to champion the goals of democratic reform, media transparency, and protecting human rights. However, he must do so with humility and an advised perspective that accounts for the fact that Myanmar is in the very first phases of a historic turn towards reform along the lines of what happened in Indonesia when Soeharto fell. Reform on this scale takes years if not decades. It is often characterized by an infuriating pattern of one step forward, two steps back; by gut-wrenching human rights violations as communities no longer tightly controlled by authoritarian leaders violently act out atavistic anxieties fueled by economic competition, religious and ethnic prejudice or other old scores.
President Obama needs to give voice to democracy and human rights themes understanding fully that he will not please all audiences. That is leadership. If done with serious intent, a commitment to follow through, and genuine humility, he will align the United States with a virtual rising tide of reform that will spread across and shape Asia for the next several decades.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.