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Myanmar and the United States: On a Reconciliatory Path?

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 14, 2012

    On February 6, the United States waived some sanctions allowing Myanmar to work with the World Bank and other international financial organisations.1 This is yet another step taken by the US to reconcile differences with Myanmar and came in response to the reformist actions taken by the Thein Sein government.

    That the US (and the West) is re-engaging Myanmar is evident from more than a dozen high-profile visits to Naypyidaw by leaders from across the world in the past few months. Moreover, within a few weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic November 2011 visit, the first such high profile visit in 54 years, the US restored diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Incidentally, the US never cut-off ties with Myanmar as it did with countries such as Iran and North Korea; it had simply downgraded relations with Myanmar in 1990.2

    In the meantime, a number of US officials paid visits to Naypyidaw as a follow-up to Hillary Clinton’s visit, encouraging the Sein government to carry on with the reform process. Congressman Joe Crowley, US special envoy for Burma Derek Mitchell and Luis Cdebaca of the State Department are prominent names in the list. Incidentally, Joe Crowley was the first member of the US House of Representatives in more than 12 years to visit Myanmar. A pro-democracy advocate, Crowley has in the past sponsored bills authorizing sanctions against Myanmar including a 2008 measure that stopped gems from Myanmar entering the United States via third countries.3 Clearly, the US decision to restore ties has come in response to the Sein government’s release of hundreds of political prisoners, a move that was hailed by Barack Obama as ‘a substantial step forward for democratic reform.’4

    Though at a nascent stage, the signs of a rapprochement between Myanmar and the US were apparent even during President Obama’s November 2010 Tokyo visit. Obama had then said that the US would welcome the Myanmar government’s initiatives to restore democracy and steps such as the unconditional release of political prisoners. Although the signs of a transformation in Myanmar were missing at that time, the Sein government did subsequently release hundreds of political prisoners and even the torchbearer of the democratic movement - Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s visit had indicated the possibility of the US wooing the military backed Sein government and securing political manoeuvring space for Suu Kyi. It appears that the US has realised that sanctions were not effective in bringing Myanmar on to the democratic path. Additionally, anxiety over a possible North Korea- Myanmar axis may also have played a part in America’s changed stance.

    Although the November 2010 elections were vehemently criticised by the US and other Western countries, yet the formation of a military-backed ‘nominally’ civilian government proved to be a turning point with the Sein government initiating steps towards providing greater freedom and rights to its people. Among other things, it has allowed people to hold peaceful protest marches. The strengthening of provincial legislatures also showcases the piecemeal changes being set in motion. In addition, workers have been granted the right to form unions.5 In the meantime, the US has been active in networking with pro-democracy Myanmarese leaders based in the West. The US seems to be working on the idea that given Myanmar’s lack of experience with democracy and its weak institutional mechanisms, any sudden military intervention or people’s movement supported by external powers might not yield the desired results.

    The issue that demands attention at this juncture is: whether Myanmar itself wants to reach out to the international community? The answer is, perhaps yes. Many believe that the Myitsone dam issue in Kachin state has created friction between China and Myanmar, though both countries have been denying it at the official level. Thein Sein suspended the US $ 3.6 billion dam construction project due to massive local protests. The project, deferred until 2015, was meant to supply cheap electricity to southern China. According to a report published in the Economist:

    ‘the Myitsone was to be the largest, and at about 150 metres (458 feet), one of the highest in the world. If completed, the dam’s reservoir would flood an area the size of Singapore and drive more than 10,000 people, mainly from the Kachin ethnic group, from their ancestral lands. The area straddles territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), one of Myanmar’s myriad insurgencies. Last May the KIO warned China that building the dam would lead to “civil war”.’6

    Unwilling to ignore popular protests, the Sein government suspended the project. According to reports, China tried to intervene in the matter citing potential economic losses and damage to the robust bilateral ties between the two countries. Chinese officials also registered their protest on the matter. Some even went to the extent of saying that, ‘It is impossible that the investor move the hydropower projects out of Myanmar ... If the Myanmar people are at risk, the investment by the investor is at risk as well. The investor and the Myanmar people are both stakeholders in dam construction.’ 7 But the Sein government refused to pay heed to such complaints.

    Over the years, Myanmar had become over-dependant on China, to the extent of being labelled a ‘satellite state’ of China. Indications are that Myanmar wants to interact with the world on its own accord so as to lessen its dependence on China. According to a study carried out within Myanmar, the country’s “reliance on China as a diplomatic ally and economic patron has created a "national emergency" which threatens the country's independence.”8 In addition, China's close ties with the United Wa State Army, Myanmar's main drug-trafficking militia, has not gone unnoticed by the authorities in Naypyidaw.9 China has been monopolising Myanmar’s markets to such an extent that local traders have been left high and dry. Also, the Chinese hunger for natural resources has, to a certain extent, ignited resource nationalism among the Myanmarese. It is also believed that China has kept Myanmar insulated in order to reap the benefits of its resources alone. Cautioning China about its shortsighted approach, Thant Myint-U, in his book Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia: Where China Meets India, rightly points out that ‘Chinese interests are served in the short term but in the longer term anti-Chinese sentiment increases; the opportunity for a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship, so important to Burma, is lost’.10

    Myanmar’s relations with ASEAN and India have proved beyond doubt that Naypyidaw has been striving to craft a balanced foreign policy, which enables the country to not become excessively dependent on a particular country. Inching closer to the US seems to be a part of that strategy. The Sein government is taking all possible measures to acquire US support, the most crucial being the release of Suu Kyi who has in turn agreed to contest the by-election scheduled for April 2012. This is considered a step in granting legitimacy to the Sein government and the election process in Myanmar.11 In another positive sign, even the ethnic minority leaders have been reaching out to the US, India and members of the European Union for developmental investment in remote areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Kachin ethnic minority leader Daw Bauk Gyar and others indicates that. For its part, the Sein government has shown signs of adopting a reconciliatory approach towards the country’s ethnic minorities. In order to end incessant ethnic clashes in various parts of the country, the Sein government has signed 11 ceasefire agreements including the January 2012 agreement with the Karens, and those signed with the Shan and Kachin rebel groups in December 2011, and that with the New Mon State Party on February 1.12 For instance, the deal with the Mons permits them to celebrate their national day, which had been prohibited for the past 15 years.13 These moves clearly demonstrate that the Sein government is keen to make peace with the country’s ethnic minorities. Bringing ethnic minority leaders into the political mainstream is also likely to strengthen the democratic process in Myanmar, even though Suu Kyi is likely to remain the main reference point for the further development of democracy in the near future.

    The US has acknowledged these changes in swiftly changing Myanmar and has been taking into account the suggestions made by Myanmar’s neighbours including India and the member countries of ASEAN. India has consistently conveyed to the US the fact that sanctions had not worked in most cases and might not work in Myanmar as well and that therefore a policy change was required. Driven by this belief, India has been building bridges with Myanmar through trade, investment and regular high-level visits by political and military delegations.

    As far as the sanctions are concerned, the US (and the West) is not likely to lift all the sanctions before the April elections. However, the process of easing sanctions has begun and it is being done through various means. Japan and France have expressed their willingness to provide financial aid to Myanmar, as is the World Bank. Moreover, Australia, a key US ally in the Asia-Pacific, announced on January 9, 2012, that it would remove sanctions on former ministers to acknowledge Myanmar’s recent steps towards reform.14 It has also been reported that the European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs is likely to announce a new EUR 150 million ($200 million) assistance package to support democratic reforms during his ongoing visit to Naypyidaw between February 12 and 14, 2012.15

    Although a lot needs to be done to ensure that Myanmar becomes a fully functioning democracy, the budding shoots of democratic recovery are surely encouraging. The Sein government deserves a word of appreciation on the count that its acceptability, both domestically and globally, is increasing. The current trajectory of developments is likely to lead to the point where the US and the Sein led government find ways to resolve outstanding points of contention between them, leading to Myanmar moving further along the path of greater political freedom, better human rights and good governance.