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US gambles on Myanmar reform

Asia Times - December 3, 2011

Brian McCartan Setting the stage for stronger future engagement, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a set of concessions to Myanmar's government aimed at rewarding the regime's recent reform signals. The announcement came during Clinton's symbolic three-day visit to the country, a trip Myanmar President Thein Sein described as "historic".

Clinton arrived in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, to a low-key welcome. The last time an American secretary of state traveled to Myanmar, then known as Burma, was when John Foster Dulles visited in 1955. Clinton's stated purpose for the visit was to "look to determine for myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms, both political and economic."

Many analysts, however, believe the visit was as much about counter-balancing China as about democracy and human rights. Clinton held meetings with Thein Sein, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament and other officials on Thursday. Clinton and her aides later told the press that the issues raised included the freeing of political prisoners, military-sponsored human rights violations in ethnic areas, and a call on the government to sever "illicit ties" to North Korea.

Washington has grown concerned over Myanmar's apparent close ties with North Korea, especially programs for the development of ballistic missiles and alleged nuclear weapons development. To this end, the US has been pressing Myanmar to allow more thorough inspections of suspect sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, there has been no sign that the Thein Sein's civilianized, military-backed government has discontinued its programs. US officials have said they are doubtful of any serious nuclear program but are concerned about a transfer of ballistic missile technology. Closer relations between Naypyidaw and Washington would remove one of the likely reasons for the acquisition of such weapons a phobia among military commanders of an American invasion of the country.

Thein Sein reportedly gave Clinton a detailed briefing on further reform plans, most of which would appear to address Washington's concerns. He reportedly spoke about plans for the gradual release of political prisoners, political reform, establishing ceasefires with ethnic minority insurgents, increased media freedoms and the adoption of international agreements on nuclear issues.

Generous concessions

Following the meetings, Clinton announced at a press conference that the US would respond to recent reforms with the relaxation of some restrictions on financial assistance and increased support for development programs. In particular, Clinton said the US would no longer use its influence to block assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The US will also apparently resume counter-narcotics operations in the country. Previous counter-narcotics cooperation between the US and Myanmar was criticized by ethnic groups when weapons and aircraft supplied by the US were used against them in counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1990's, including against the non-drug producing or trafficking Karen National Union (KNU).

Clinton also extended an invitation for Myanmar to join the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is at present composed of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and is devoted to issues of water management on the Mekong that often bring Southeast Asia into conflict with China. An upgrade of America's diplomatic mission to Myanmar was also discussed with the possible assignment of an ambassador. (The US has been represented by a charge-de-affairs since it removed its ambassador following the violent suppression of the 1988 pro-democracy protests.)

Economic and financial sanctions, however, are unlikely to end any time soon. Although discussed during the talks, US officials have been cautious to say that their easing or removal are not yet on the table. To have them legally rescinded would require the cooperation of the United States Congress, where several influential members have made known their disapproval of Clinton's visit, including chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

On Thursday, Clinton travelled to Yangon for a dinner with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. Suu Kyi has given guarded support for Thein Sein's reform efforts and has said that she believes the risk of supporting the government is worthwhile. A more formal meeting was held between Clinton and Suu Kyi on Friday morning, followed by meetings with ethnic minority group and civil society representatives.

Clinton's visit can be chalked up as a "win" for Thein Sein's nominally democratic government. Her arrival alone conveyed much sought after legitimacy and respect in the international community. Together with the offered concessions, Thein Sein's government has been able to achieve what previous military regimes were unable to do garner enough respect as the country's legitimate government.

This should have a strong positive effect on future reform efforts, assuming they are genuine. Those opposed to reform can see that it is achieving some success and those taking a middle line on the process may be encouraged to back future moves. However, it is unlikely that the reforms are being carried out without the backing of the country's former military dictator and officially retired Senior General Than Shwe and other high-ranking current and former military officers. But the further the reforms go, the more difficult they will be to repeal in the future.

Additionally, American support lends the regime a new degree of legitimacy in the eyes of its own population despite its rise to power through rigged elections in 2010. By extending Washington's backing to the reform effort together with support from Suu Kyi, there is a powerful incentive for Myanmar's beleaguered and impoverished citizens to give the new government a chance.

Conversely, Washington's support for a still unproven reform effort risks giving the government political capital to continue its wayward practices elsewhere, especially in ethnic minority areas. The country's military leaders, many of whom are now in the present government, frequently used concessions to the international community as a way of covering up arrests of opposition figures or brutal military offensives in border regions.

Recent reports by human rights groups indicate that human rights abuses continue unabated in these areas. Indeed, military operations have increased against certain ethnic insurgent groups since Thein Sein took power in March, some of which, like the Kachin, formerly had ceasefires with the government. Ethnic minority leaders claim that while Thein Sein has promised to hold a national convention on ethnic issues and claims to be holding ceasefire talks, he has failed to directly address their political concerns and the government has refused to hold discussions with more than one group at a time.

While the US will likely continue to push for human rights guarantees and an end to the civil war, by lending legitimacy to the government it risks fueling an already accelerating trend of nongovernmental organizations and donors withdrawing from programs aimed at helping ethnic minorities fleeing war scenes and political activists in exile and shifting their work in-country through Naypyidaw and Yangon. With both China and US courting Naypyidaw, it is less convenient to support ethno-nationalist insurgencies and their activists on the borders, analysts note.

Chinese perceptions

American officials have consistently claimed that the growing detente with Naypyidaw is not about China, but is based on a desire to promote human rights and democracy in Myanmar. Clinton rejected the balance-of-power notion during her visit, saying, "We are not viewing this in light of any competition with China. We are viewing it as an opportunity for us to reengage here."

Most observers, however, see ulterior motives. Myanmar's importance to the US has grown in recent years as the Barack Obama administration has sought to reassert its presence in the region. The US has expended considerable effort to reengage with Naypyidaw, having seen in recent years China's economic and strategic interests grow considerably in a country that was formerly a strategic and economic backwater.

In light of Obama's recent tour in the region and Clinton's manifesto article in Foreign Policy setting out a new, more pro-active policy for Asia, a perception is growing in China that the US may be aiming to contain its rise. In non-confrontational response, China has called on "relevant countries" to lift sanctions against Myanmar to promote development and stability, according to a December 1 China foreign ministry briefing. While subtly questioning American sincerity, it also said that Beijing welcomes increased contact between Myanmar and the US.

Myanmar's past isolation meant it sought friends only where it could find them. It became heavily reliant on China for weapons, international diplomatic support, trade and investment. But the relationship with China has never sat well with Myanmar's military rulers. While some exploited the situation for personal gain, others became very concerned about Beijing's growing presence and commercial influence.

It is unlikely that Naypyidaw intends to unilaterally ally itself with one great power over another. During its decades-long period of isolation and international condemnation, it has become adept at playing bigger powers off against one another, and has a long-established tradition of nonalignment in its foreign relations. The power games being played between Washington and Beijing, and also with New Delhi, are certainly not lost on Myanmar's leaders.

Days before Clinton's visit, military head General Min Aung Hliang travelled to Beijing in what was interpreted as a move to assuage Chinese fears of growing relations with the US. Despite a rift over the recent cancellation of the important Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, the general held discussions with Vice President Xi Jinping, slated to become China's leader next year, and chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army, General Chen Bingde. Both sides pledged continued military cooperation and signed a new defense cooperation agreement.

Because the sincerity of Thein Sein's reforms are far from certain, Clinton's visit and concessions represent a diplomatic gamble. Should his government press forward with democracy-promoting reforms, American support could prove key in making them sustainable. To deepen engagement with the US, Myanmar's leaders will need to prove the current reforms will remain in place once they receive the international recognition, aid and investment they covet.

[Brian McCartan is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at bpmccartan1@gmail.com.]

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