When continuity makes sense

Published on January 4, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

The Pioneer – January 4, 2017

Whether the Trump Administration will have an interest or focus on Myanmar, will also depend on America’s broader policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. But as the leading advocate of democracy around the world, the US needs to focus on its policy objectives

To the surprise of many political observers around the world – both critics and supporters alike – Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States. Trump was so unconventional and unpredictable that some even among his Republican elites distanced themselves from the party’s nominee. Because of his new entry into politics, some of Trump’s comments were politically incorrect or considered unacceptable by social standards.

If the President-elect is to go by his election campaign promises, he would focus on domestic politics over relations with the international community, including the US pivot to Asia, one of President Barack Obama’s central foreign policy initiatives. The pivot was meant to be a strategic re-balancing of US interests from Europe and West Asia toward East Asia. With its pivot programme, the Obama Administration signalled a shift from its predecessor’s focus on West Asia.

In conjunction with its larger Asia policy, the Obama Administration undertook several significant initiatives toward Myanmar, which had been under economic and political sanctions by the Bush regime. The Obama Administration’s Myanmar policy kicked off in September 2009, when it officially announced a nine-month-long policy review to start engaging the military junta while retaining sanctions. The US policy shift materialised after having engaged in more than 20 high-level visits by the US Assistant Secretary, special representatives and other officials, meeting with people from different walks of life across the country. More importantly, the support of Aung San Suu Kyi was instrumental.

The policy shift was followed by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar in December 2011, which was the first such visit to the country in 50 years. It was made possible by Myanmar’s progress toward democratic reform, particularly the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Secretary of State’s visit was followed by the appointment of Derek Mitchell as the new US Ambassador to Myanmar on June 29, 2012. The US had downgraded its diplomatic representation in Myanmar to charge d’ affaires following a military coup in 1988 and a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, as well as due to the nullification of the 1990 general election result, which was overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD).

In a sign of progress in bilateral relationship, President Obama first visited Myanmar in November 2012, becoming the first sitting US President to do so. Obama then visited the country again in November 2014, partly because Myanmar hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia summit, which Obama had to attend.

The bilateral relations improved further in the aftermath of the November 2015 election, which the NLD won in a landslide. The NLD’s electoral victory eventually led to the lifting of the long-held US sanctions on Myanmar on September 14, 2016. Subsequently, the Obama Administration terminated the National Emergency with respect to Myanmar and revoked the Executive Order-based framework of the Myanmar sanctions program. The US also restored the Generalised System of Preferences trade benefits to Myanmar in light of progress on a number of fronts, including strengthening protection for internationally recognised worker rights.

However, the US arms embargo under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and other stringent export controls remain in place. There is also a continued visa ban on a list of individuals viewed as being linked to the Myanmar armed forces, known as Tatmadaw. In addition, there are Specially Designated Nationals located in Myanmar who remain listed under authorities related to North Korea and narcotics trafficking.

With the lifting of sanctions, the US commits to continued cooperation in addressing challenges, such as strengthening the rule of law, promoting respect for human rights, countering human trafficking, combatting corruption, and advancing anti-money laundering efforts and counter-narcotics activities.

Until now, President-elect Donald Trump has not made any public statement on what his administration’s policy toward Myanmar would be. But it can be guessed or speculated from his election campaign that he is unlikely to take a strong personal interest on Myanmar, unlike his predecessor. For example, Obama established a close rapport with Suu Kyi and also visited the country twice. But the overarching US policy on Myanmar will largely remain the same. With a Republican in the White House and both Houses of the Congress being dominated by Republicans, it will even make things easier if the US Government chooses to implement any new policies on Myanmar.

Whether the Trump Administration will have an interest or focus on Myanmar will also depend on America’s broader policy toward the Asia-Pacific region. But as the leading advocate of human rights and democracy around the world, the US needs to continue with its unfinished objectives in Myanmar, especially in areas of consolidation of democracy, the peace process between the Government and ethnic armed groups, and on the sensitive question of the Rohingya issue. Challenges remain in the democratisation process, especially in areas of institutional building, constitutional amendment, as well as the need for gradually reducing the role of military in politics.

The second phase of the 21st century Panglong conference is due to begin in the month of February this year, but heavy armed clashes continue between the Myanmar Army and members of the Northern Alliance — the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA).

Under the present circumstances, it is unlikely that a majority of the armed groups will attend and or participate in the upcoming conference. The first Panglong conference in 1947 failed partly due to the non-participation of all major ethnic nationalities of the time. Only representatives from the Chin, Kachin and Shan ethnic groups signed the Panglong agreement with the Myanmar Government representative Aung San to form an interim Government. Soon after the country’s independence, the insurgency movement began.

Another major problem where the Trump administration should diligently help or at least offer assistance is on the question of the Rohingya conundrum. One way to do that would be to encourage the Kofi Annan-led panel, which the NLD Government appointed, to find a long-lasting solution to the problem.

The writer is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, and an author.

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