In a not so unexpected development, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced on Friday January 13, 2012 that the United States would fully restore diplomatic relations with Burma (Myanmar). While the announcement date may jinx the entire thing, the move comes as the latest in a series of calculated steps (most notably Secretary Clinton’s landmark visit to Myanmar in December 2011) taken by the United States targeted at easing tensions with and propagating democracy in the Asian Pacific nation. While we can speculate on how this move plays into President Obama’s new ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy, it is important to note that the Burmese government has made a surprising break from its repressive past...a hopeful moment that offers us a glimpse into how the United States might deal with some of the world’s more unsavory regimes.
President Thein Sein’s shift towards democracy arguably started with the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) announcement of its reformist intentions after winning the November 2010 elections. Although these elections were almost universally regarded as a sham (USDP won 80% of the vote), they are widely viewed as having been the catalyst that sparked Burma’s post election transformations, offering opposition leaders a long desired public voice and a taste of powerful democratic tools; tools that sparked revolutions across the world in 2011. Since embarking on his self-coined path towards “disciplined democracy”, President Sein has made a number of promising first steps including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, signing a law that allows peaceful demonstrations, and inking a cease-fire agreement with Karen rebels (the same group that, a little over a year ago, was locked in a fierce battle with government forces in eastern Burma). President Sein’s efforts are punctuated by the Burmese parliament’s approval of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy in the April by-election on a National League for Democracy (NLD) party ballot. President Sein explains in a recent interview with Lally Weymouth that his government’s, “reform measures are being undertaken based on the wishes of the people [who want] to see our country have peace and stability as well as economic development.”
But why the sudden change of heart? Did US and European sanctions make the Burmese military see the error of their repressive ways? I doubt it. A host of sanctions enacted as a consequence of the Burmese military’s brutal suppression of the 1987 ‘8888 Uprisings’ have been in effect since 1990. Freezing assets, limiting trade, and banning foreign investments have done little to foster political freedoms or improve Burma’s human rights record. In the previously mentioned Lally Weymouth interview, President Sein offers that, “[US and European] sanctions were aimed at harming our government but, actually, they harmed the interest of our people.” I know that sounds like a weak effort at regime propaganda, but there is a more salient point underneath President Sein’s snark…US and European sanctions have limited the average Burmese citizens access to foreign investment and international markets without gaining sufficient leverage to stave off repression.
So, did the military finally get tired of beating monks and squashing rebellions? It’s possible. The government held peace talks with rebels in the Thai-Burma border town of Hpa-an in December 2011. These talks brought together a number of rebel groups including the Shan State Army-South and the Karen rebels, both of which have negotiated preliminary peace settlements with the government. This point should not be overlooked. These groups have been locked in fierce battles with the Burmese government for decades, and these former sworn enemies were able to sit across the table from one another and sign peace deals. That’s pretty amazing progress. But getting tired from 20 years of repression cannot be the only reason for Burma’s reforms.
Could this be a hedge against Chinese influence? I think we are getting warmer! John Blaxland, former Australian military attaché to Burma explains, “China obviously has a very important role to play in the future of Burma.” China is Burma’s largest supplier of military equipment, and closest advocate on the international stage. The Burmese recognize the importance of their relations with China. However, Blaxland theorizes that the Burmese “need some wiggle room. They’re concerned that they are too beholden to the Chinese.” If President Sein is smart and a little bit sneaky, I’m sure he realizes that better relations with the US and Europe affords him the ability to play the interests of western powers off on China, placing Burma in a very favorable position. The other side of the coin is that Mr. Sein’s opportunistic efforts also open him up to enhanced scrutiny by the international community, a critical opening that will allow international actors to verify that President Sein is not using one hand to sign trade deals while using the other to flog a few monks. As for right now, the United States should take full advantage of improving relations, not only because they are the first promising signs of democratization to come out of Burma in years, but also because it offers the US the chance to turn the tide of Burma’s repressive past and reinvigorate relations with a former Asian Pacific ally.
While the reasoning behind Burma’s attitude shift is ultimately unknown, it offers the US a great opportunity to rethink its policies of engagement towards repressive regimes. This rethink is critical not only for the creation of a durable and resilient peace with Burma, but also as a test case for dealing with stickier governments around the world. There is room for a great deal of optimism here, but I am inclined to support a more guarded approach, for as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi offers, “I believe the President wants reform, but he is not the only one in government.“ Hopefully the coming months will shed light on President Sein’s true intentions and whether his efforts at reform will endure.