U.S. Engagement and Burma’s Fundamental Political Problem

Published on November 27, 2011

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Korea Times – November 27, 2011 

On 18 November 2011, President Barack Obama said he will send Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Burma in December. The president’s announcement is a manifestation of improved diplomatic engagement between the two nations. When Clinton begins a two-day visit from December 1, it will be the first visit by the top U.S. diplomat in half a century.

As it moves forward with a new level of engagement, some important questions need to be pondered. What has triggered this new level of U.S. engagement toward a country it once branded as an “outpost of tyranny?” Does this higher engagement have the potential of ending over six decades of ethno-political conflicts in this Southeast Asian nation?

While some observers, mostly activists, argue that it is too early to embark on such bold initiative, others believe that it is important to seize a political opening in the reclusive country.

The two most important priorities of the Burmese government in international relations, in recent years, have centred around legitimacy and recognition. In pursuing these objectives, the immediate goal of Nay Pyi Taw was to convince the collective leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and to urge the U.S. government to ease, if not lift, sanctions.

Nay Pyi Taw’s diplomatic efforts have been positively paid off, and therefore, 2011 can be considered the most successful year of diplomacy in recent Burmese history.

Washington’s new level of engagement is augmented by the nineteenth ASEAN Summit’s unanimous agreement to award Burma the 2014 chairmanship of the regional bloc. In 2006, Burma had to forego its rotating ASEAN chair because of intense pressure from rights groups and the international community, particularly the U.S. government. Some ASEAN members were also concerned that giving chairmanship to Burma would tarnish the regional body’s international image.

There is a good reason to be cautiously optimistic on the recent developments in Burma and as president Obama stated, there has been “flickers of progress” in the past few weeks. The greater question now is whether the Burmese government has a genuine intention for true democracy and national reconciliation.

A number of tangible political developments have driven a shift in U.S. foreign policy. Among others, the advice and recommendations of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have played an important role in this development.

Besides visits by the U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell, both Obama and Clinton personally spoke to Suu Kyi and consulted her on how U.S. should move forward with its engagement policy. Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership support Washington’s engagement approach.

Since her meeting with President Thein Sein on August 19, Suu Kyi has toned down her rhetoric against the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-led government, paving the way for political reconciliation. NLD is now prepared to re-register its defunct political party and Suu Kyi and her party members are expected to contest in the upcoming by-election.

Anyone who pursues an in-depth study of the Burmese history should understand the root cause of Burma’s decades-old problems. U.S. strategists and policy makers must understand that all major ethnic minorities in Burma fight against the central government in one way or another.

It must be noted that ethnic Karens had begun fighting against the Burmese government since 1949. What has compelled ethnic minorities to take up arms against the central government is a fundamental question that needs to be addressed for Burma to achieve peace and stability.

During the diplomacy stages before the country’s independence in 1948, General Aung San was fully aware that a unified Burma could not be established if equality was not guaranteed for all ethnic nationalities, who were ruled under different administrative units by the British colonial administration.

In his attempt to clear the lingering doubts and suspicions of the British government and the frontier leaders, Aung San made a historic remark by stating that: “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.” This assurance was the basis on which the Union of Burma was formed at the Panglong conference in February 1947.

With the assassination of Aung San and his colleagues in July 1947, the dream of equality or autonomy has disappeared in Burmese politics. Burma’s first post-independence civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu failed to address the minorities’ concern, and successive military governments have attempted to forcefully suppress it.

While the reconciliation between NLD and USDP is an important step, emphasis must now be given to the fundamental political problem. Democracy for one majority group alone cannot solve Burma’s political imbroglio.

Several decades of military operations have been unable to solve Burma’s minority problems, and nor should it be a means to an end. One most viable way to integrate ethnic minorities is to end military offensives against them, and begin a political dialogue based on mutual respect and a constitutional guarantee of equality for all citizens.

The U.S. should continue to set benchmark for normalizing relations with the Burmese government. Nay Pyi Taw’s commitment to democratization needs to be irreversible and should be demonstrated by releasing all remaining political prisoners; the government must be able to tolerate political dissent and respect the rights of every citizen to express opinions without fear.

When she travels to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon for fact finding and policy assessment, Clinton should underscore the need for addressing the problems of ethnic minorities. Because of her wide acceptance by minorities, Suu Kyi can play an important role in restoring mutual trust between the government and ethnic minorities.

Only when the country’s minority problems are resolved can there be an end to over six-decades of political conflicts in Burma. The advantage the U.S. government has on Burma is crucial for national reconciliation.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma/Myanmar and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and non-academic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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