Among the many hands that Barack Obama will likely shake on his inaugural trip to Asia as U.S. President will be that of a soft-spoken general who happens to represent one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Obama’s planned joint appearance on Nov. 15 with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ confab on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore, will mark the first time since the era of Lyndon B. Johnson that an American President has spent any face-time with a member of the Burmese junta that has ruled since 1962.
The brief meet-and-greet will underscore a major shift in American foreign policy toward the Southeast Asian nation, renamed Myanmar by its ruling generals. For decades the U.S. has shunned contact with the Burmese military regime and in recent years has tightened financial sanctions on its leaders for their murderous treatment of their citizens.
But after a strategic review conducted over several months, the U.S. State Department announced in September that it would pursue a policy of cautious engagement with Burma, in part because isolation had not worked in blunting the regime’s brutal behavior. Administration officials cautioned that sanctions would remain in place for the time being and would only be lifted if the Burmese government showed tangible human-rights progress. But dialogue with dictators, goes the new U.S. thinking that is being applied from Iran to North Korea, is now seen as preferable to not talking and cutting off any chance at reconciliation.