Why McCain visits Myanmar now?

Published on June 2, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Korea Times – June 2, 2011

John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona, has been one of the fiercest critics of the military junta in Myanmar (Burma), while lending unwavering support to the Aung San Suu Kyi-led democracy movement. Why has a man who once called the Myanmarese military generals “thugs” decided to visit the Southeast Asian country now? Perhaps equally surprising is why did the Myanmarese government issue him a visa?

This week’s visit comes at a time when both the United States and the Myanmarese government are interested in improving bilateral ties. The visit is more important for the Myanmarese than the senator’s own agenda. Even though McCain has not publicly spelt out the objectives of his mission, his past records have suggested what his intentions are.

Although he is not an official envoy from the U.S. government, the nature of his important role in imposing sanctions on Myanmar and his influential status in the Senate makes the visit a significant one.

The high-profile trip also comes at a time when Myanmar has once again captured headlines in international media. The country’s request for the 2014 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), two high-profile visits from the U.N. secretary general special envoy Vijay Nambiar and U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state Joseph Yun, and the visit to China by the Myanmarese President Thein Sein, all happened in May, and have drawn the attention of the international community.

Analyzing his past records on Myanmar, McCain has two primary objectives on his trip ― assessing the reality of political developments after the 2010 election and listening to Suu Kyi’s view on U.S. policy. McCain said in his July 2009 Senate floor statement, “I once had the great honor of meeting Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a woman of astonishing courage and incredible resolve.”

The 2008 presidential candidate presumably has no high expectation of making great strides on this trip. By meeting Suu Kyi, he wants to reiterate his admiration for her courage and dedication for the cause of democracy, and convey the U.S. strong support for democracy and human rights.

With the formation of a new Myanmarese government, McCain plans to assess political developments inside the country. In doing so, he is expected to meet representatives from the government, which is dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Since there are over 2,000 political prisoners still languishing in different prisons across Myanmar, McCain is likely to push for their release and the implementation of more democratic reforms before the U.S. can consider lifting sanctions, the issue raised by deputy assistant secretary of state Joseph Yun in his May 18-20 trip.

On the other hand, Myanmar wants to take this opportunity to show the U.S. that it has made progress in democratic reforms. The new Myanmarese government, former military generals in civilian clothes, wants to demonstrate its claim to the international community. This is an important reason why McCain was issued a visa in the first place.

Indeed, the government has something positive to present to the visiting senator and other critics. President Thein Sein recently reduced all prison sentences by one year and commuted the death penalty to life imprisonment. Thousands of prisoners were released, although only a small number of political prisoners were among the freed.

Naypyidaw will argue that Myanmar has successfully conducted its first countrywide general election in two decades and has released thousands of prisoners. It will reiterate its demand for the U.S. government to lift sanctions which the Myanmarese government considers as the greatest hindrance for improving bilateral relationship.

It has to be noted that the United States has leverage to help genuine democratic transition in Myanmar for two important reasons. The first is because of the unparalleled U.S. economic and military power and its pioneering role in championing democracy and human rights. The second is the wide acceptance of the U.S. engagement policy by the Myanmarese people.

The senator’s visit should be viewed as a positive development. The U.S. government needs to continue its diplomatic pressure for genuine democratic reforms and protection and promotion of human rights. One effective way of engagement for the senator is to urge his colleagues to confirm the nomination of Derek Mitchell as a U.S. special envoy for Myanmar.

The then-President George W. Bush nominated Michael J. Green as U.S. special envoy for Myanmar in late 2008, which was never confirmed by the senate. Sen. McCain and his senate colleagues should not let President Barack Obama’s nomination slip away. The special envoy, with an ambassador rank, can work more effectively than some occasional visits.

Myanmar’s decades-old problem is not entirely a question of democracy. The root cause is about denying rights to ethnic minority groups. In the process of engaging Myanmar, the U.S. government, either Democratic or
Republican, should involve more representatives and experts from ethnic minorities.

After all, the Myanmarese people themselves best understand the political psychology of the military generals. Myanmarese native scholars should be consulted equally, if not more than Western scholars, in formulating effective U.S. political strategy. They have the advantage of in-depth empirical knowledge besides theoretical, which the Western scholars often lack.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) whose works have been widely published in five continents ― Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He currently pursues a Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University and can be reached at nkipgen1@niu.edu.

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