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June 29, 2017

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Obama's Myanmar chess match

UNITED NATIONS -- The historic visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Myanmar, the highest profile American diplomatic contact ever to this long isolated political pariah state, saw the United States enter a high stakes geopolitical chess game in Southeast Asia.

Thus amid the shimmering golden temples and pagodas of Rangoon, the president set out to cut through the murky political haze which still envelops this storied Southeast Asian land.

A rogue regime, Myanmar has long been courted by China, coveted by India, and shunned by Washington and most Western countries have come back into play after a reform process by the current quasi-civilian leadership under President Thein Sein.

The political dynamic appears to be changing as Myanmar's leadership has allowed a series of incremental reforms which included contested parliamentary by-elections, a release of political prisoners, and allowing respected dissident and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi a prominent place in the political transition.

Just a year ago U.S. Secretary of Stare Hillary Clinton made a celebrated visit to Myanmar, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles in 1955, to nudge open the political doors.

During the recent United Nations General Assembly debate, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi made a near victory lap visit to the U.N.

Whether Washington's proposed engagement is prompted by a genuine glimmer of political hope in the country, it is being perceived by the People's Republic of China as a bold political move on the mainland's southern frontier at a time when Beijing has already chastised President Obama's plans for a "policy pivot" to Asia. The move is seen in China as "part of a cold war mentality" and an attempt at American encirclement.

Thus the welcome thaw in relations between Myanmar and the United States has been viewed by Beijing as playing in the People's Republic's backyard.

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