Thursday, October 23, 2008

Burmese Americans ponder their Presidential choice

by Myat Soe and May Ng
Thursday, 23 October 2008 12:39

Since both the Republican and Democratic parties support the Burmese democracy cause, whether John McCain or Barack Obama becomes the next president is not a major issue with Burmese citizens in the United States. But among Burmese American voters there is a visible loyalty to John McCain and the Republican Party for having been vocal supporters of the struggle for democracy inside Burma.

However as the current financial crisis escalates, Burmese are beginning to think more about U.S. politics and the presidential election. Opinions among Burmese voters in the United States are as diverse as among any other group of Americans. But one thing is for certain, the focus of the debate is now squarely on the economy.

In the state of Indiana, home to a sizable Burmese population, Burmese workers have experienced a direct impact from globalization. Manufacturing jobs in the state have moved to third world countries with lower safety standards and, most importantly, to countries with much lower corporate taxes. Therefore even a Clinton Democrat in Indiana recently lamented that Obama's tax plan will continue to drive manufacturing industries and the jobs overseas.

Obama's plan to retool American factories and also to reduce dependence on foreign oil sounds good, but similar rhetoric in the past has not met with results, as the powerful interests of major oil companies continue to dominate American politics.

Because of the severity of the financial crisis in the U.S. and the world, it is unlikely that either McCain or Obama will be able to fix the economy in less than four years. Further, neither candidate has been able to clarify the mystery surrounding the complexity of the credit meltdown. In short, a cogent plan to solve the most pressing economic problem since the Great Depression of the 1930's seems nowhere on the horizon.

Another question for a Burmese voter is the racial issue. Most Burmese have lived under a regime in Burma that continuously exploits the racial advantage of military leaders, and these voters are wary of any candidate with racial distinction. However, this is not necessarily an advantage for Obama since Burmese voters do not feel that McCain benefits from the race card as much as Obama.

But in terms of the race issue it also depends on the state in which the voter resides. A Clinton Democrat in New York reported that during the early primary season even African American women in New York viewed Hilary Clinton quite favorably compared to Obama. And some young black Americans even remarked that Obama is not really black. But those people have now solidly moved to Obama's side. Even Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, an important Republican, now endorses Mr. Obama.

Burmese voters in New York, with Hillary Clinton as their senator, like to argue that eight years ago the U.S. was enjoying a fiscal surplus unlike the present devastating fiscal disaster. But Burmese voters in New York also remember Republican leaders like First Lady Laura Bush and John Bolton speaking up for them at the United Nations and only wish that Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer from New York would do the same. They also worry that the soft approach of Mr. Obama might not work well when up against the Burmese military junta, while concerned that an Obama administration may de-prioritize the issue of Burma altogether.

With the presidential contest expected to become tighter as Election Day approaches, Burmese voters will have to start making up their mind in places like Indiana. It will be interesting to see if they vote for the winner or if they vote for the one they feel the most loyalty to; for loyalty means a lot to Burmese voters. However, ironically, Obama can only prove to the Burmese voters that he is the right candidate for them by getting elected and doing the things that he so eloquently proposes during his campaign.

Will voters, including Burmese, give him a chance to prove himself? It is a good question.

(The writer, Myat Soe is the Research Director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma and May Ng is the New York regional director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma)


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