Tillerson’s Myanmar visit shows Trump’s renewed interest in South-East Asia

Published on November 8, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Hindustan Times – November 8, 2017

Top on the list will be the Rohingya crisis, but equally important will be talks about democratising Myanmar, and ensuing that the military junta does not have ties with North Korea

As part of his six-nation trip to Asia, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson will visit Myanmar on November 15. The main focus of Tillerson’s meeting with senior government leaders will be on issues concerning the Rohingya crisis. Two other issues are also expected to be addressed: Myanmar’s democratisation process and that Myanmar’s leadership, especially the military, does not have links with North Korea.

Since the days of his election campaign, analysts have held the view that Myanmar is not on Trump’s foreign policy priority list. In fact, until recently, the Trump administration had shown a lukewarm interest toward South-east Asia, particularly Myanmar. By contrast, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama visited the country twice as president.

Tillerson’s visit comes at a time when the Trump administration is considering declaring a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims as ‘ethnic cleansing’. The Rohingya crisis has already been labelled as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the chief of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

The Trump administration is also under pressure from members of the US Congress who have called for the re-imposition of sanctions against the Myanmar military. If implemented, the targeted sanctions would include travel curbs on Myanmar military officials and prevent Washington from supplying assistance to the Myanmar military until perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingyas are held accountable.

Tillerson is expected to tell the Myanmar government that it should allow the refugees to return at the earliest possible and that the government must provide all basic necessities, including security.

While denying the occurrence of ethnic cleansing, Naypyidaw has said the proposed US sanctions would hinder the fledgling power sharing arrangement between the civilian government and the military.

The second issue of Tillerson’s visit is to urge the Myanmar leadership, civilian as well as the military, to push forward the country’s democratisation process. Myanmar’s democratic transition today is incomplete and remains in the stage of illiberal democracy.

Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) government has significant control over the day-to-day administration and a significant majority in parliament, it has no control over the military. Among others, the military controls all security-related ministries in the government — home, defence and border affairs, the national defence and security council, and 25% of seats in all legislatures.

Tillerson is expected to offer both carrots and sticks during his visit. While he will say that the US is ready to extend help and assistance in addressing the Rohingya crisis as well as in the democratisation process, he is also likely to tell Naypyidew about the possibility of the re-imposition of targeted sanctions. This has the potential to trigger internal tensions between the military and civilian government.

The third issue which Tillerson is likely to discuss is to ensure that Myanmar, especially the military leadership, does not maintain links with North Korea. Since 2011, Naypyidew has assured Washington that it has no military ties with Pyongyang. This has become a crucial issue again, especially because of the rising tension between Washington and Pyongyang.

To prevent the US-Myanmar ties from deteriorating, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s foreign minister, will try to explain and convince the Trump administration about the challenges her government faces. It remains to be seen if Washington will listen to Suu Kyi.

Meanwhile, it is also important to understand her limitations under the hybrid political regime, as enshrined in the 2008 constitution. It is unlikely that Suu Kyi will take actions that could potentially offend the military leadership and the sentiments of the overwhelming majority population who consider Rohingyas as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh.

It is also important to understand the fact that Suu Kyi is no longer a democratic icon or political activist she used to be during the years of her pro-democracy movement or house-arrest. She is now a pragmatic politician who wants to remain in power now and also in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is executive director, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, and author of Democratization of Myanmar.

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