Setting the stage for stronger future engagement, United States Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton announced a set of concessions to Myanmar's government
aimed at rewarding the regime's recent reform signals. The announcement came
during Clinton's symbolic three-day visit to the country, a trip Myanmar
President Thein Sein described as "historic".
Clinton arrived in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, to a low-key welcome. The last
time an American secretary of state traveled to Myanmar, then known as Burma,
was when John Foster Dulles visited in 1955. Clinton's stated purpose for the
visit was to "look to determine for myself and on behalf of our government what
is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms,
both political and economic."
Many analysts, however, believe the visit was as much about
counter-balancing China as about democracy and human rights. Clinton held
meetings with Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, speakers of the
upper and lower houses of parliament and other officials on Thursday. Clinton
and her aides later told the press that the issues raised included the freeing
of political prisoners, military-sponsored human rights violations in ethnic
areas, and a call on the government to sever "illicit ties" to North Korea.
Washington has grown concerned over Myanmar's apparent close ties with North
Korea, especially programs for the development of ballistic missiles and
alleged nuclear weapons development. To this end, the US has been pressing
Myanmar to allow more thorough inspections of suspect sites by the
International Atomic Energy Agency.
However, there has been no sign that the Thein Sein's civilianized,
military-backed government has discontinued its programs. US officials have
said they are doubtful of any serious nuclear program but are concerned about a
transfer of ballistic missile technology. Closer relations between Naypyidaw
and Washington would remove one of the likely reasons for the acquisition of
such weapons - a phobia among military commanders of an American invasion of
Thein Sein reportedly gave Clinton a detailed briefing on further reform plans,
most of which would appear to address Washington's concerns. He reportedly
spoke about plans for the gradual release of political prisoners, political
reform, establishing ceasefires with ethnic minority insurgents, increased
media freedoms and the adoption of international agreements on nuclear issues.
Following the meetings, Clinton announced at a press conference that the US
would respond to recent reforms with the relaxation of some restrictions on
financial assistance and increased support for development programs. In
particular, Clinton said the US would no longer use its influence to block
assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The US will also apparently resume counter-narcotics operations in the country.
Previous counter-narcotics cooperation between the US and Myanmar was
criticized by ethnic groups when weapons and aircraft supplied by the US were
used against them in counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1990's, including
against the non-drug producing or trafficking Karen National Union (KNU).
Clinton also extended an invitation for Myanmar to join the Lower Mekong
Initiative, which is at present composed of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and
Vietnam and is devoted to issues of water management on the Mekong that often
bring Southeast Asia into conflict with China. An upgrade of America's
diplomatic mission to Myanmar was also discussed with the possible assignment
of an ambassador. (The US has been represented by a charge-de-affairs since it
removed its ambassador following the violent suppression of the 1988
Economic and financial sanctions, however, are unlikely to end any time soon.
Although discussed during the talks, US officials have been cautious to say
that their easing or removal are not yet on the table. To have them legally
rescinded would require the cooperation of the United States Congress, where
several influential members have made known their disapproval of Clinton's
visit, including chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana
On Thursday, Clinton travelled to Yangon for a dinner with opposition leader
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. Suu
Kyi has given guarded support for Thein Sein's reform efforts and has said that
she believes the risk of supporting the government is worthwhile. A more formal
meeting was held between Clinton and Suu Kyi on Friday morning, followed by
meetings with ethnic minority group and civil society representatives.
Clinton's visit can be chalked up as a "win" for Thein Sein's nominally
democratic government. Her arrival alone conveyed much sought after legitimacy
and respect in the international community. Together with the offered
concessions, Thein Sein's government has been able to achieve what previous
military regimes were unable to do - garner enough respect as the country's
This should have a strong positive effect on future reform efforts, assuming
they are genuine. Those opposed to reform can see that it is achieving some
success and those taking a middle line on the process may be encouraged to back
future moves. However, it is unlikely that the reforms are being carried out
without the backing of the country's former military dictator and officially
retired Senior General Than Shwe and other high-ranking current and former
military officers. But the further the reforms go, the more difficult they will
be to repeal in the future.
Additionally, American support lends the regime a new degree of legitimacy in
the eyes of its own population - despite its rise to power through rigged
elections in 2010. By extending Washington's backing to the reform effort
together with support from Suu Kyi, there is a powerful incentive for Myanmar's
beleaguered and impoverished citizens to give the new government a chance.
Conversely, Washington's support for a still unproven reform effort risks
giving the government political capital to continue its wayward practices
elsewhere, especially in ethnic minority areas. The country's military leaders,
many of whom are now in the present government, frequently used concessions to
the international community as a way of covering up arrests of opposition
figures or brutal military offensives in border regions.
Recent reports by human rights groups indicate that human rights abuses
continue unabated in these areas. Indeed, military operations have increased
against certain ethnic insurgent groups since Thein Sein took power in March,
some of which, like the Kachin, formerly had ceasefires with the government.
Ethnic minority leaders claim that while Thein Sein has promised to hold a
national convention on ethnic issues and claims to be holding ceasefire talks,
he has failed to directly address their political concerns and the government
has refused to hold discussions with more than one group at a time.
While the US will likely continue to push for human rights guarantees and an
end to the civil war, by lending legitimacy to the government it risks fueling
an already accelerating trend of nongovernmental organizations and donors
withdrawing from programs aimed at helping ethnic minorities fleeing war scenes
and political activists in exile and shifting their work in-country through
Naypyidaw and Yangon. With both China and US courting Naypyidaw, it is less
convenient to support ethno-nationalist insurgencies and their activists on the
borders, analysts note.
American officials have consistently claimed that the growing detente with
Naypyidaw is not about China, but is based on a desire to promote human rights
and democracy in Myanmar. Clinton rejected the balance-of-power notion during
her visit, saying, "We are not viewing this in light of any competition with
China. We are viewing it as an opportunity for us to reengage here."
Most observers, however, see ulterior motives. Myanmar's importance to the US
has grown in recent years as the Barack Obama administration has sought to
reassert its presence in the region. The US has expended considerable effort to
reengage with Naypyidaw, having seen in recent years China's economic and
strategic interests grow considerably in a country that was formerly a
strategic and economic backwater.
In light of Obama's recent tour in the region and Clinton's manifesto article
in Foreign Policy setting out a new, more pro-active policy for Asia, a
perception is growing in China that the US may be aiming to contain its rise.
In non-confrontational response, China has called on "relevant countries" to
lift sanctions against Myanmar to promote development and stability, according
to a December 1 China foreign ministry briefing. While subtly questioning
American sincerity, it also said that Beijing welcomes increased contact
between Myanmar and the US.
Myanmar's past isolation meant it sought friends only where it could find them.
It became heavily reliant on China for weapons, international diplomatic
support, trade and investment. But the relationship with China has never sat
well with Myanmar's military rulers. While some exploited the situation for
personal gain, others became very concerned about Beijing's growing presence
and commercial influence.
It is unlikely that Naypyidaw intends to unilaterally ally itself with one
great power over another. During its decades-long period of isolation and
international condemnation, it has become adept at playing bigger powers off
against one another, and has a long-established tradition of nonalignment in
its foreign relations. The power games being played between Washington and
Beijing, and also with New Delhi, are certainly not lost on Myanmar's leaders.
Days before Clinton's visit, military head General Min Aung Hliang travelled to
Beijing in what was interpreted as a move to assuage Chinese fears of growing
relations with the US. Despite a rift over the recent cancellation of the
important Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, the general held discussions
with Vice President Xi Jinping, slated to become China's leader next year, and
chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, General Chen
Bingde. Both sides pledged continued military cooperation and signed a new
defense cooperation agreement.
Because the sincerity of Thein Sein's reforms are far from certain, Clinton's
visit and concessions represent a diplomatic gamble. Should his government
press forward with democracy-promoting reforms, American support could prove
key in making them sustainable. To deepen engagement with the US, Myanmar's
leaders will need to prove the current reforms will remain in place once they
receive the international recognition, aid and investment they covet.
Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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