Monday, December 12, 2011

A new chapter in US-Myanmar ties

US SECRETARY of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Myanmar on November 30, the first trip by a US secretary of state to Myanmar in more than 50 years.

Making a diplomatically risky trip to the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, the US Secretary of State said she wanted to see for herself whether the new civilian leaders were truly ready to throw off 50 years of the military dictatorship - a test that includes rare face-to-face meetings with former members of the junta, whose brutal rule made a poor pariah state of one of the region’s most resource-rich nations.

Before travelling to Myanmar, Clinton told reporters in South Korea that she is cautiously optimistic about the tentative reforms shown.

‘I am obviously looking 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,’ she said. Echoing President Barack Obama when he announced he was sending her to Myanmar, she also said, ‘We and many other nations are quite hopeful that these “flickers of progress” ... will be ignited into a movement for change that will benefit the people of the country.’

Clinton has said she will insist that Myanmar free all political prisoners — activists’ estimates vary between 500 and over 1,600 — and move to end the long-running ethnic conflicts that have displaced thousands of people.
While Clinton’s trip could open a new chapter of improved Myanmar-US relations in the coming years, officials in Naypyidaw have been talking up her visit. According to Ko Ko Hlaing, a political adviser to Thein Sein, ‘it is a historic landmark for the two countries’ relationship.’ ‘After the trip, the picture will be clearer and we can say what we hope to achieve more.’

However, US President Barack Obama made clear in his statement on November 18 that three topics of concern remain—peaceful resolution of conflicts in ethnic areas, release of all political prisoners and Myanmar’s nuclear ties with North Korea.

But according to Ko Ko Hlaing, ‘Regarding these issues, the [Myanmarese] government will resolve them when it goes towards democratic ways. These efforts do not depend on any country’s pressures or demands.’

The Obama administration is betting that the visit will pay dividends, promoting human rights, limiting suspected cooperation with North Korea on ballistic missiles and nuclear activity and loosening Chinese influence in a region where America and its allies are wary of China’s rise.

Officials say Clinton will be seeking assurances from Myanmar’s leaders that they will sign an agreement with the UN nuclear watchdog, which will permit unfettered access to suspected nuclear sites. The US and other Western nations suspect Myanmar has sought and received nuclear advice along with ballistic missile technology from North Korea in violation of UN sanctions. A US official said missiles and missile technology are of primary concern but signs of ‘nascent’ nuclear activity are also worrying.

Clinton will also note the government’s baby steps toward reform after 50 years of military rule that saw brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists like Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy party.

Clinton’s private dinner on December 1 and formal meeting with Suu Kyi on December 2 were the highlights of the visit. Suu Kyi, who intends on running for parliament in upcoming elections, has welcomed Clinton’s trip and told Obama in a phone call earlier this month that engagement with the government would be positive. Clinton has called Suu Kyi a personal inspiration.

Suu Kyi said that she still supported US sanctions against her country’s government, but would have a better idea of the chances for reform after she met with Clinton.

The trip is the first major development in US-Myanmar relations in decades and comes after what Obama described as ‘flickers of progress’ in the country—a reference to the series of reforms and policy decisions taken since the military government stood aside in March. The Obama administration launched a new effort to instil reforms in 2009 with a package of carrot-and-stick incentives.

Following the Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in the summer of 1988, the US downgraded its head of mission in Myanmar from ambassador level to chargĂ© d’affaires.

The US also imposed different economic sanctions against the regime in 1997, 2003, 2007 and 2008, as well as banning high level official visits to the country.

However, in 2008, the White House along with American lawmakers decided to use both sanctions and engagement to achieve change in Myanmar. A special representative and policy coordinator to Myanmar, former Deputy Secretary of Defence Derek Mitchell, was appointed on August 15.

A leaked US diplomatic cable dated February 9, 2009, claimed that this new tactic was bearing fruit as, ‘the most senior generals are looking for an escape strategy … they hate being subject to sanctions and want to be treated with the respect accorded to other world leaders.

‘Senior generals are getting old and want assurances that, if they voluntarily step aside, they and their families will retain their assets and not be prosecuted,’ the cable continued.

Additionally, the Myanmar regime has been noticeably attempting to develop good relations with Washington in recent years, including welcoming US officials such as Derek Mitchell, Senator John McCain, Senator Jim Webb and other senior state department figures to the country.

One senior official accompanying Clinton on the trip described the administration’s early efforts as ‘abysmal failures’ but said the situation had improved notably in recent months. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the administration’s internal thinking.

The rapprochement sped up when Myanmar held elections last year that gave power to a new government that pledged greater openness. The administration’s special envoy to Myanmar has made three trips to the country in the past three months, and the top US diplomat for human rights has made one.

It was those officials who pushed for Clinton to make the trip, deeming a test of the reforms as worthwhile despite the risks of backsliding.

But the government that took office in March is still dominated by a military-proxy political party, and Myanmar’s commitment to democratisation and its willingness to limit its close ties with China are uncertain.
Corruption runs rampant, hundreds of political prisoners are still jailed and violent ethnic conflicts continue in the country’s north and east. Human rights activists have said Clinton’s visit should be judged by improvements in those conditions.

Myanmar’s army continues to torture and kill civilians in campaigns to stamp out some of the world’s longest-running insurgencies, according to rights groups. They say ongoing atrocities against ethnic minorities serve as a reminder that reforms, recently unveiled by the country’s military-backed government to worldwide applause, are not benefiting everyone.

With minorities settled in some of its most resource-rich border regions and making up some 40 percent of Myanmar’s 56 million people, resolution of these brutal conflicts is regarded by all sides as crucial. The fighting has uprooted more than a million people, who are now refugees within their own country or in neighbouring Thailand and Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s military continues its brutal attacks on Christian churches in Chin minority areas in Kachin State, as it has also done in Karen, Karenni, and Naga areas. Rohingya Muslims continue to face severe discrimination and restrictions on their religious activity, causing large refugee problems in Bangladesh and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Hundreds of Buddhist monks, such as U Gambira, continue to serve long sentences.

Thus, some important questions arise, which need to be considered. What has triggered this new level of US engagement toward a country it once branded as an ‘outpost of tyranny?’ Does this higher engagement have the potential of ending over six decades of ethno-political conflicts in this Southeast Asian nation?

While some observers, mostly activists, argue that it is too early to embark on such a bold initiative, others believe that it is important to seize this political opening in the reclusive country.

The two most important priorities of the Myanmar government in international relations, in recent years, have centred on legitimacy and recognition. In pursuing these objectives, the immediate goal of Naypyidaw was to convince the collective leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to award Myanmar the 2014 chairmanship of the regional bloc and to urge the US government to ease, if not lift, sanctions.

These efforts have paid off, and therefore, 2011 can be considered to be the most successful year of diplomacy in recent Myanmar history.

There is good reason to be cautiously optimistic about the recent developments in Myanmar. As President Obama stated, there have been ‘flickers of progress’ in the past few weeks. The greater question now is whether the Myanmar government has a genuine intention of achieving true democracy and national reconciliation.

While the reconciliation between NLD and USDP is an important step, emphasis must now be placed on the fundamental political problem. Democracy for one majority group alone cannot solve Myanmar’s political imbroglio.

Several decades of military operations have been unable to solve Myanmar’s minority problems. The most viable way to integrate ethnic minorities is to end military offensives against them and begin a political dialogue based on mutual respect and a constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all citizens.

The US should continue to set benchmarks for normalising relations with the government.

Naypyidaw’s commitment to democratisation needs to be irreversible and it should be demonstrated by releasing all remaining political prisoners; the government must be able to tolerate political dissent and respect the rights of every citizen to express opinions without fear.

The Secretary should underscore the need to address the problems of ethnic minorities. Because of her wide acceptance by minorities, Suu Kyi can play an important role in restoring mutual trust between the government and ethnic minorities.

Only when the country’s minority problems are resolved can there be an end to over six decades of political conflict in Myanmar. The advantage the US government has over Myanmar is crucial for national reconciliation.

It is also very crucial to encourage Myanmar’s authorities to realise the international community’s longstanding call for a tripartite dialogue between the regime, Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic nationality leaders. Without a concerted high-level engagement that includes the country’s ethnic minorities, any hopes for true democratic reform will not materialise.

BT : Aman Ullah.