Wednesday, November 23, 2011

U.S.-Myanmar: A Convergence of Interests

The announcement that United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Myanmar in December 2011 is a bold and welcome move by the administration of President Barack Obama . The fruit of growing realizations by both states of the need for improved relations for their national interests, it is the product of internal and external stimuli in both countries.

The Obama administration, when first it took office, inherited the Bill Clinton-George W Bush policy of advocating "regime change" in Myanmar. It dropped that objective and explored the possibility of improving relations and encouraging reforms through dialogue with the previously isolated country.

Signals were sent by both sides. Mid-level American diplomats had access to Myanmar cabinet-level officials for the first time, and the US signed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which Washington had not signed because of Myanmar's entry into the grouping in 1997.

Neither, however, was sufficient. The US wanted the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the release from prison of political prisoners, while the Myanmar government wanted the elimination of the severe sanctions regimen that the US had serially imposed.

With the inauguration of the new, civilianized government in the spring of 2011 after flawed but significant elections, the President of Myanmar, former prime minister and general Thein Sein, began a series of moves that were unprecedented in a half-century, when the last civilian government existed in 1962. Critics charge that there were other modest attempts at change in the past that were still-born, but the scope and magnitude of the present changes are unprecedented.

Ranging from presidential admissions of neglect in the social sectors, the high incidence of poverty, corruption, and release of some political prisoners, the proposed changes involve the formation of a human-rights commission, new more liberal labor laws, less press censorship, and a reaching out to former dissidents. Political party registration laws have been amended to allow the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to register, and Suu Kyi to run for a parliamentary seat.

Critics ask why these changes now? A case can be made that they were instituted at least in part to ensure that Myanmar will chair the ASEAN summit meeting in 2014, which has just been formally approved by the group. Or perhaps they were engendered to improve relations with the US in an attempt to balance over-reliance on China.

The unprecedented stoppage of Chinese construction of the highly controversial Myitsone Dam in the Kachin State, after Thein Sein declared that he was responding to the people's will, together with the opening to the US may signify an attempt to balance Myanmar foreign relations - a hallmark of its foreign policy since independence in 1948.

The Myanmar military, in spite of their negative portrayal in the external media, are highly patriotic and do not want to be the pawn or client state of any external power. The regime seeks also additional legitimacy beyond the borders of ASEAN and East and Southeast Asia.

This new move by the Obama administration is politically astute on two levels. It shows Myanmar that the US is serious and positively applauds their reforms, while still calling for additional liberalization. It therefore reinforces the position of the reformers, who have many internal high-level opponents, by demonstrating that the reforms have already had a positive impact on the world.

It thus makes the reforms so far more difficult to be rescinded. The Obama policy called for "pragmatic engagement" after a thorough review: dialogue has been enhanced while sanctions have continued. This was pragmatic in terms of the US political scene, where sanctions and Suu Kyi had strong bipartisan support, and she has continued her approval of sanctions.

With this new move, the Obama administration can rightly claim that the policy of dialogue has been extended to an even higher level, the issue of sanctions has been for the moment set aside although they continue, while Suu Kyi has personally approved of Secretary of State Clinton's visit.

It has taken half a century for Myanmar to embark on this important new path, for at that time the country was thought to become the wealthiest and most developed in Southeast Asia. Instead, after nearly five decades of consecutive military rule, it has become the poorest.

It has also taken the US two decades to realize that isolation and calls for "regime change" would not work. The interests of both countries have now become intertwined to a degree hitherto unrecognized but had always been there. We can only hope that this innovative initiative will improve relations, leading to the enhanced living standards of the impoverished Myanmar peoples.

By David I Steinberg Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume is Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know Oxford University Press.Asia Times

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