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Myanmar after Hillary Clinton’s visit

Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 12, 2011

    Hillary Clinton’s three-day visit1 to Myanmar (November 30-December 2) marks a watershed in Myanmar-US relations. It signals acceptance by the international community that the process of transition in Myanmar has begun and potentially opens up new avenues for Myanmar in its domestic and foreign relations. This is the first visit by a US Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles visited in 1955 and the first since the military seized power in 1962. Actually, the thawing of relations with Myanmar is part of the US’s growing engagement with ASEAN and a return to the Asia-Pacific to counter the perceived expansion of China’s sphere of influence. Myanmar’s trajectory from here would depend on how it addresses its domestic concerns and how well it is received and rehabilitated by the international community.

    Political Changes in Myanmar

    Myanmar has witnessed some important developments in recent years. It has a new Constitution (2008) and a new Parliament and the first nominal civilian government in years following the November 2010 election (although the military still commands a significant role). But the SPDC, the military junta, is gone and Senior General Than Shwe is no longer at the helm of affairs. At the East Asia Summit in Bali, President Obama had spoken of “flickers of progress” in Myanmar which were evidenced in the dialogue between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of over 200 political prisoners, the formation of a human rights commission (October 6), new labour laws (October 13) and the relaxation of media restrictions. The Jakarta Post (December 3) rightly stated that the “The new US engagement policy in the Southeast Asian region must calculate a policy of fairness (not double standards).” The US has already abandoned one of its twin-prongs of policy towards Myanmar i.e., disengagement. It must now be bold and give up the other prong, viz., sanctions. New legislation encouraged the National League for Democracy (NLD) to re-register itself on November 18th which would enable Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for elections (after her last victory in the 1990 elections).

    Background to Hillary Clinton’s Visit

    The US had begun recaliberating its Myanmar policy in February 2009 when Secretary Clinton admitted that sanctions had failed. In March 2009 State Department official Stephen Blake (Director of mainland SEA affairs) met Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win and other officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An important headway was made in August when US Senator Jim Webb (Democrat from Virginia and Chair of the Asian Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) not only secured the release of fellow American John Yettaw but achieved the seemingly impossible task of securing a meeting with Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. A month later in September Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell met in New York with U Thaung, Myanmar Minister of Science and Technology and former ambassador to the US. Campbell followed this up with a landmark visit on November 3-4, 2009 to Myanmar. Accompanied by Undersecretary Scot Marciel he met Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy (NLD) Party Central Executive Committee members, representatives of the largest ethnic minorities, and Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein. During the meetings he “stressed the importance of all stakeholders engaging in a dialogue on reform and emphasized that the release of political prisoners is essential if the elections planned for 2010 are to have any credibility.” Later, on November 15, 2009 President Obama and Myanmar PM Thein Sein met at the US-ASEAN Summit in Singapore. More recently, in November 2011, US Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Myanmar Derek Mitchell and US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner met Myanmar government officials, Aung San Suu Kyi and civil society representatives.

    The Significance of the Visit

    Hillary Clinton flew to Myanmar from Busan (Republic of Korea) where she attended the Forum on Aid Effectiveness. Considering Myanmar’s LDC-status and its isolation for so long a period, this context becomes important as Myanmar could do with much needed aid to get back into the international mainstream. Perhaps a sort of ‘Marshal Plan’ for Myanmar could help make up for lost time. Hillary Clinton indicated several measures towards closer ties which could be considered:

    • Restoring diplomatic ties to Ambassadorial level (reduced since the 1988 military crackdown);
    • Easing sanctions and eventual elimination if reforms are sustained (sanctions were renewed for another year in September 2011);
    • Lift the blockade of World Bank and IMF programmes and support World Bank and IMF aid to Myanmar;
    • Support for UN counter-narcotics and health cooperation programmes.
    • Establishing a Friends of Burma group to channel substantial resources for autonomy, etc.;
    • English-education programmes to be run out of the East West Center;
    • Programme to assist landmine victims through the (rather inappropriately worded) ‘Humpty Dumpty Institute’.

    The ethnic groups are among the three important stakeholders in Myanmar (political parties and the Military are the other two) and unless there is ethnic reconciliation complete harmony may not be restored. In the longest running ethnic strife, human rights violations have occurred as noted by the Physicians for Human Rights. The allegations by Kachins of continuing human rights violations will need to be redressed. Even though the 2008 Constitution does provide some autonomous zones to some ethnic groups (including to the Naga and Wa) further levels of autonomy or a second Panglong type conference may not be immediately forthcoming. However, it is encouraging that some ethnic organizations are cooperating and appear keen on national reconciliation.

    Myanmar has suffered for far too long due to non-engagement by the bulk of the international community. From being among the richest Southeast Asian nations at the time of independence in 1948, Myanmar was reduced to being an LDC. Because of the complete boycott by the West following the 1988 crackdown, the military leadership had no alternative but to depend on its sole supporter- China, which provided the much needed economic and military aid besides a diplomatic cover in the Security Council. A rising China with need to access the Indian Ocean (through Myanmar) invested heavily in infrastructure including the proposed railway and twin pipeline from Yunnan (China) to Kyaukphyu port (Myanmar). Clinton’s visit could correct somewhat the imbalance that has crept in the Myanmar-China relationship. Myanmar desperately needs greater investment in the health and education sectors and the international community can play a crucial role. Here, it is noteworthy that Myanmar has been invited to become an observer to the Lower Mekong Initiative, a US-backed grouping. This is a welcome change because when Myanmar was made ASEAN member in 1997 it faced a lot of Western opposition. With its bid to chair the ASEAN in 2014 finally accepted, there is hope that Myanmar will be rehabilitated eventually in the international community.

    Implications for the Region

    As the US stepped up its engagement with Myanmar, China responded with enhanced military, political and economic commitments.2 Clinton’s visit was followed by that of the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (December 5-7). Accompanied by a 38-member entourage, Hasina raised hopes of import of natural gas3 and repatriation of a few hundred thousand Rohingyas back to Myanmar. Hasina laid the foundation stone for a new embassy building, which would make Bangladesh the first country to shift its mission from Yangon to Naypyidaw. The visit also led to an agreement on the Establishment of a Joint Commission, which lays the basis for cooperation. Also signed was an MoU between Bangladesh’s FBCCI and Myanmar’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and there are hopes about the implementation of the July 2011 agreement in the Joint Trade Commission to increase bilateral trade from $185 million to $550million.

    India too desires a prosperous and stable Myanmar. When Myanmar President Thein Sein visited India these objectives were reemphasized. There are common problems which need to be addressed – the lack of infrastructure in our border areas being one. India has commenced some important infrastructure projects like the Kaladan multimodal project, the Tamanthi hydroelectric project besides the trilateral Asian highway, and the trans-Asian railway project. All this will bring greater connectivity and augment India’s Look East policy in a meaningful manner. It will help develop India’s Northeast and address the problems of underdevelopment and insurgency there. In the changed scenario, although the number of actors engaging Myanmar is bound to increase, India will continue to play an important role in this Southeast Asian neighbouring country. As noted by Thant Myint-U in his recent book Where China Meets India, “Progress in Burma would be a boon for the region. A peaceful, prosperous and democratic Burma would be a game-changer for all Asia.”

    • 1. Accompanied by, among others, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Myanmar Derek Mitchell, and Policy Planning Director Jake Sullivan. Hillary Clinton’s visit was preceded by a flurry of visits by senior US officials earlier.
    • 2. On November 28, 2011, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping met with Myanmar C-in-C Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in Beijing to “bolster comprehensive strategic partnership.” An MoU on military cooperation was also signed.
    • 3. Bangladesh had earlier sidestepped the tri-national (Myanmar-Bangladesh-India) pipeline proposal. Now a foreign business consortium has assured the requisite investment in a pipeline were such an agreement to be signed between the two countries. Bangladesh had earlier initialed an agreement with China for importing natural gas from gas fields with China.