After decades of isolation, the West seems to be softening towards Myanmar, which is evident with Hillary Clinton’s scheduled visit to the country on 1-2 December 2011. Does this visit bring with itself a promise of rejuvenation of relations between Myanmar and the West? Are the recent changes in Myanmar seen by the international community as credible? Why is the West changing its perspective on Myanmar now, and what is the reason for the Myanmarese civilian government’s decision to change its policy of repression and introduce an element of democracy?
Clinton is the highest ranking US official to visit the country since the military coup and subsequent takeover by Gen Ne Win in 1962. A high level US official visit to Myanmar was on the cards, with a change in US policy towards the country signalled by the visits of US Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, the new Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, Derek Mitchell, and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Michael Posner in the past few months. Clinton is expected to meet Myanmarese President Thein Sein and the country’s pro-democracy movement’s spearhead, Aung San Suu Kyi, in addition to some parliamentarians of the country during her visit.
This marks a definite departure from the Bush administration’s stated policy of greater economic sanctions towards Myanmar, calling it one of the six ‘Outposts of Tyranny’. Clinton’s visit is strategically timed and follows US President Obama’s statement on greater engagement with Asia and the stationing of 2,500 Marine Corps personnel off the coast of Australia. However, the US’s prospective engagement with Myanmar is conditional and does not guarantee lifting of economic sanctions, with the benchmarks being:
I. National reconciliation and an end to the ethnic conflict
II. Political reforms and free and fair elections
III. Release of all political prisoners
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has also indicated his willingness to visit Myanmar to press for reforms.
This visit may also initiate some meaningful dialogue between the Myanmarese civil government and the western world on the issue of lifting economic sanctions which Myanmar would view as a means for economic empowerment. There is also hope of improved bilateral trade between the two countries should this meeting set the ball rolling for greater engagement. As things stand, there is a blanket sanction on importing products and providing financial services to Myanmar under the rule of the military junta.
The reason for this change in the Western stance is because President Thein Sein’s government has lived up to its commitments in the past few months, including initiating a dialogue with the ethnic minorities, a gradual release of all political prisoners and amnesty to dissidents.
The US has also expressed its intent of making ASEAN stronger as a regional entity to press for reforms in Myanmar. The West has energy interests in the country, with the two of the biggest oil and natural gas exploration companies in Myanmar, Total of France and Unocal (Chevron) of the US operating in Yadana and Yatagun respectively, which cannot be compromised. In addition, it has been proven in the past few decades that isolating Myanmar has only pushed it closer to China making the West wary of China’s growing reach.
The reasons for this ‘democratic’ approach by Myanmar can be to counter-balance the extensive Chinese influence in the country which seems to be a factor in further isolating it from the West. Even the Myanmarese government now views Chinese ‘support’ with suspicion and a little fear. Also, not engaging with the West actively has not served Myanmar in any way; the economy of the country is in the doldrums and President Sein has stated that the revival of the economy is one of his primary immediate goals.
Myanmar is rising from the ashes of its tumultuous past. There is sufficient optimism about recent developments in the country to assure the international community that theis change, which has been often talked about since last year’s elections, is real. Unlike in the past, these affirmative actions are coming from within the government of Myanmar. However, this visit by Clinton should not be taken as a definite sign of immediate removal of sanctions and the normalizing of relations between the two countries. As is evident from the US stand on Myanmar, an incremental change, much like in the case of US-Vietnam relations, is in store.
Perhaps President Thein Sein’s ‘different’ approach to his predecessors, evident from discussions about issues like governance, inclusiveness of ethnic groups in the country’s political process, rule of law and dialogue with dissidents in his public addresses, works to Myanmar’s advantage. For now, Western interest in Myanmar is gradually reigniting. Whther this interest is sustainable, and whether it will ensure concrete Western engagement with the country in the future remains to be seen.