US-Myanmar rapprochement?

Published on October 8, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Korea Times – October 7, 2011 

Political analysts and observers alike may be asking whether the engagement between the United States and Myanmar are real or just phony political maneuvers. Optimists may call it a step toward democratization and pessimists may still be reluctant to concur.

The U.S. government is pursuing a carrot and stick approach or what some call a “dual-track” policy toward Myanmar. On the other hand, the Myanmarese government is seeking to reestablish the bilateral relationship it had before the 1988 democracy uprising.

Given the experiences from successive military regimes, one can be as pessimistic as it can be. Despite the diverse opinions, one thing apparent is that both countries are working to improve the bilateral relationship between the two nations.

Recent developments have provided evidence that the Obama administration is committed to the mission. The appointment of Derek Mitchell as U.S. special envoy for Myanmar itself is a significant step. The lingering question now is how serious is this rapprochement?

The Myanmarese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, who represented Myanmar at the 66th U.N. General Assembly, was invited to U.S. State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29. It was Lwin’s first visit to the State Department and the highest-level visit by a Myanmarese official in 2011.

The meeting between Lwin and Mitchell was attended by two other U.S. officials ― Michael Posner, democracy, human rights and labor assistant secretary and Kurt Campbell, East Asian and Pacific affairs assistant secretary. It was a follow-up meeting to one first held at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

In the last three years, there have been four separate high-level bilateral meetings between the two countries on U.S. soil. Nyan Win, former Myanmarese foreign minister, visited Washington, D.C., in 2009 and the minister again met U.S. officials in New York in 2010 on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.

If the seriousness of this bilateral engagement were to be judged on deeds rather than rhetoric, there have not been many accomplishments yet.

What does the U.S. government want to see from the Myanmarese government before it can resume a full diplomatic relationship, including placing a permanent ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Yangon?

The fundamental U.S. demands are the release of all political prisoners (approximately over 2,000 in different prisons across Myanmar); an inclusive dialogue with opposition parties and ethnic minorities; adherence to U.N. non-proliferation agreements on nuclear weapons; greater accountability on human rights issues; and an end to violence against ethnic minorities.

Although the Myanmarese government has not fully implemented any of the above demands, there are some indications that it is considering them. The first significant sign was the dialogue between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein on Aug. 19, followed by Mitchell’s visit to Myanmar.

The other significant sign for rapprochement was witnessed on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly when the Myanmarese foreign minister noted that the “President in exercising the mandate vested upon him by the constitution will further grant amnesty at the appropriate time in the near future.” The government claims that it has released about 20,000 prisoners since May. Whether the proposed amnesty will include political prisoners is uncertain.

The latest development, somewhat surprising to many observers, came when the Myanmarese President, on Sept. 30, ordered the suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam, a hydroelectric project worth $3.6 billion in the state of Kachin. This is one significant sign the government is beginning to listen to the concerns of the people.

The Kachins, one of the ethnic groups fighting for autonomy for decades, and others have been protesting the construction of this dam, which will not only destroy the ecological balance, but also displace several thousands of people. This sudden announcement is likely to irk the Chinese government, and may result in a strained relationship between the two countries, at least for the time being.

All these recent developments are encouraging steps for rapprochement, which the United States considers essential to democratization and national reconciliation in Myanmar.

In return for its national reconciliation efforts, what the Myanmarese government wants from the U.S. government is primarily the lifting of economic sanctions. The Myanmarese government believes that the Western sanctions, particularly by the European Union, will gradually be lifted if the United States begins to take such a step.

In addition, the Myanmarese government wants the U.S. government to know its initiatives on human rights and peace with ethnic minorities. Such acknowledgement from the United States will boost the nominal civilian government domestically.

Based on recent developments, it is safe to say that the U.S. government is serious about its rapprochement initiatives. It may not also be an exaggeration to say that the Myanmarese government is beginning to seize this opportunity.

The Myanmarese government must unequivocally understand that while rapprochement with the United States is important, it is imperative that it begins genuine rapprochement with the country’s ethnic minorities, which remains the crux of Myanmar’s decades-old problems.

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). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Myanmar and Asia that have been widely published in five continents ― Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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2 Comments

  1. There has been a great deal analysis on the current reforms taking place in Myanmar under the leadership of Thein Sein. One cannot help but note that the significance of these reforms have been overblown by the western media, especially the U.S./EU media. The Obama administration’s mindset is fundamentally flawed like all other previous American Administrations going back some 40 years. It is a shame and a pity that the so-called Burma experts are self-proclaimed people that has visited the country a few times, spoke to a few English speaking Burmese and came back with the “title” of Burma expert/specialist. etc.

    These self-proclaimed Burma experts, the academia, some in politics, some in government service get most of their information from expatriate Burmese, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Shan, etc, etc, etc, with theur own agendas first to get hand outs from host countries and then lobby to influence policies on Burma. The Western intelligence information on Myanmar for the past 50 years is scattered and disoriented at best. So, Hillary Clinton is in for a great deal of surprises. Obama’s and her perception of these reforms are based on something quite different from what Thein Sein and the people around him are actually thinking.

    A good clue is, it took over 20 years for Suu Kyi to come to the realization that her only and best option, for herself, the country and the people was to cooperate with the “seat of power at the given time”, (TATMADAW, SLORC, SPDC), Ne wIN, Saw Maung, Than Shwe. She failed to accept that rality or was in dedial and relied heavily “western support” and confronted the military establishment. And the Western BLOC relied on isolating the country and sanctions to bring about REGIME change. Both failed miserably, and the people of Myanmar suffered greatly.

    Now, having said that, Suu Kyi and the Western BLOC have responded correctly to the events now taking place under Thein Sein’s leadership. But Clinton and Obama still keep talking about “keeping sactions” in place and SUU Kyi agreeing to that stance. One must state it rudely and bluntly that this stance is absolutely rediculous and frankly stupid. The reforms are being carried out and implemented for various objectives and will continue and move forward regardless of “the sanctions in place” or “without Suu Kyi”. Clinton must bear this in mind when she meets Thein Sein.

    Shwe Thaung

    • that, Suu Kyi and the Western BLOC have responded trcrecoly to the events now taking place under Thein Sein’s leadership. But Clinton and Obama still keep talking about keeping sactions in place and SUU Kyi agreeing to that stance. One must state it rudely and bluntly that this stance is absolutely rediculous and frankly stupid. The reforms are being carried out and implemented for various objectives and will continue and move forward regardless of the sanctions in place or without Suu Kyi . Clinton must bear this in mind when she meets Thein Sein. Shwe Thaung