Monday, December 12, 2011

Need to negotiate Barak Basin water treaty with India through international law

India will not stop building the Tipaimukh Dam because of our political demonstrations. For our part, we have failed to provide a clear concept about what we really want. A lower riparian country must seek a water sharing treaty to protect the natural flow of water in a transnational river. Our demands will make sense only when we keep focus on what we want and exactly how we should achieve them. Using the traditional "scream and shout" tool, rather than laws and principles, could drown us in the river of suspicion.

Water treaties on international rivers are based on the concept of "no harm" done to any country. Construction of a dam in the Barak River will alter the natural flow of water and the water level downstream in Bangladesh. Our position, therefore, should be to pursue a bilateral Barak Basin Water Sharing Treaty with India. It will not be the first bilateral treaty in South Asia.

India-Pakistan (Indus Basin Water Treaty): Negotiations held under the good offices of International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), culminated in the signing of Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. The Treaty was signed in Karachi by Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, the then President of Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Indian Prime Minister and WAB Illif of the World Bank, on September 19, 1960. The Treaty, however, became effective from April 1, 1960.

India-Nepal (Mahakali River Treaty): The Treaty on integrated development of the Mahakali River was signed between India and Nepal in February 1996, which came into force in June 1997 (Mahakali Treaty). The Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project on the river Mahakali, known as Sarda in India, is the centre piece of the treaty. The India-Nepal Joint Group of Experts (JGE) has been overseeing the physical and financial progress with respect to finalisation of the Joint Detailed Project Report of the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project.

India-Bangladesh (Ganges Water Sharing Treaty): The Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) is functioning since 1972 with a view to maintaining liaison in order to ensure the most effective joint effort in maximising the benefits from the common river systems which is headed by Water Resources Ministers of both the countries. A new chapter in the Indo-Bangladesh relations opened up with signing of a treaty by the prime ministers of India and Bangladesh on December 12, 1996 on the sharing of the river Ganges waters. The Treaty will remain in force for a period of 30 years to be renewable by mutual consent. For monitoring the implementation of the treaty, a joint committee has been set up.

The principal focus of international law on water treaties, their monitoring system, enforcement and potential conflict areas are still evolving. This article is based on papers and databases at Oregon State University, USA. (Source: Of the 21 multilateral treaties/agreements on international rivers, developing nations are parties to 13. Only one multilateral treaty exists between industrialised nations for access to a water source, namely the treaty regarding water withdrawals from Lake Constance signed by Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 1966.

Principal focus: Most of the 145 international water treaties focus on hydropower and water supplies: 57 (39 per cent) treaties discuss hydroelectric generation and 53 (37 per cent) deal with the distribution of water for consumption. Nine (6.0 per cent) mention industrial uses, six (4.0 per cent) navigation, and six (4.0 per cent) primarily discuss pollution. Thirteen of the 145 (9.0 per cent) focus on flood control.

Monitoring: Seventy-eight (54 per cent) treaties have provisions for monitoring, while the rest do not. When monitoring is mentioned, it is addressed in detail, often including provisions for data-sharing, surveying, and schedules for collecting data.

Information-sharing generally engenders goodwill and can act as confidence-building measures between co-riparian countries. Unfortunately, some states classify river flows as secrets and others use the lack of mutually acceptable data as a stalling technique in their negotiations. Most monitoring clauses contain only the most rudimentary elements, perhaps due to the time and labour costs of gathering data.

Data collected by the signatories of a treaty can provide a solid base for later discussions. India and Bangladesh previously could not agree on the accuracy of each other's hydrologic records, but eventually agreed on Ganges flow data and based a workable agreement on that data in 1977.

Method for water division: Few treaties allocate water. Clearly defined allocations account for 55 (37 per cent) of the agreements. Of that number, 15 (28 per cent) specify equal portions, and 39 (72 per cent) provide a specific means of allocations. All but three multilateral agreements lack definite allocations, although a few establish advisory and governing bodies among states.

There are four general trends in those treaties which specify allocations: (1) A shift in position often occurs during negotiations from "rights-based" criteria (whether hydrographical or chronological) in favour of "needs-based" values (based on irrigable land or population, for example); (2) In the inherent disputes between upstream and downstream riparians over existing and future uses, the needs of the downstream riparian are more often delineated (agreements mention upstream needs only in boundary waters accords in humid regions), and existing uses, when mentioned, are always protected; (3) Economic benefits are not explicitly used in allocating water, although economic principles have helped guide definitions of "beneficial" uses and have suggested "baskets" of benefits, including both water and non-water resources, for positive-sum solutions; and (4) The uniqueness of each basin is repeatedly suggested, both implicitly and explicitly, in the treaty texts.

This last point is exemplified in the unique treaty elements devised by negotiators. The 1959 Nile Waters Treaty divides the average flow based on existing uses, then evenly divides any future supplies (projected from the Aswan High Dam and the Jonglei Canal Project). The Johnston negotiations led to allocations between the river Jordan riparians based on the irrigable land within the watershed; each party could then do what it wished with its allocations, including divert it out-of-basin. The Boundary Waters Agreement, negotiated with a hydropower focus between Canada and the United States, which allows a greater minimum flow of the Niagara River over the famous falls during summer daylight hours, when tourism is at its peak.

Hydropower: Fifty-seven of the treaties (39 per cent) focus on hydropower. Power-generating facilities bring development, and hydropower provides a cheap source of electricity to spur developing economies. Some, however, suggest that the age of building dams will soon end, because of lack of funding for large dams, a general lack of suitable new dam sites, and environmental concerns.

Not surprisingly, mountainous nations at the headwaters of the world's rivers are signatories to the bulk of the hydropower agreements. Nepal alone, with an estimated two per cent of the world's hydropower potential, has four treaties with India (the Kosi River agreements, 1954, 1966, 1978, and the Gandak Power Project, 1959) to exploit the huge hydropower potential in the region.

Groundwater: Only three agreements deal with groundwater supply: the 1910 convention between Great Britain and the Sultan of Abdali, and the 1994 Jordan-Israeli and 1995 Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Treaties that focus on pollution usually mention groundwater, but do not quantitatively address the issue.

Non-water linkages: Non-water linkages include capital (44 or 30 per cent); land (six or 4.0 per cent); and political concessions (two or 1.0 per cent). Other linkages account for 10 of the 145 treaties (7.0 per cent).

Examples of these linkages can be found in the 1929 Nile agreement, in which the British agreed to give technical support to both Sudan and Egypt. In another example, the Soviet Union agreed, in lieu of payments, to compensate lost power generation to Finland in perpetuity (the 1972 Vuoksa agreement). Britain even established ferry service across newly-widened parts of the river Hathmatee in India, in compensation for the inaccessibility problems created by a dam project in the late 1800s.

Compensation for land flooded by dam projects is common. For example, British colonies usually agreed to pay for water delivery and reservoir upkeep, and the British government agreed to pay for flood damage to houses. However, capital can provide compensation for a greater array of treaty externalities and requirements, such as the construction of new water facilities; the India-Nepal Kosi River Project Agreements, signed in 1954 and 1966 provide two examples.

Treaties which allocate water also include payments for water; 44 treaties (30 per cent) include monetary transfers or future payments. As early as 1925, Britain moved toward equitable use of the rivers in its colonies: Sudan agreed to pay a portion of the income generated by new irrigation projects to Eritrea, since the Gash River flowed through that state as well. Treaties also recognise the need to compensate for hydropower losses and irrigation losses due to reservoir storage: the 1951 Finland-Norway treaty and the 1952 Egypt-Uganda treaty both include such compensation. Again, these agreements emphasise the monetary aspect of water; they do not describe water as a right.

Enforcement: Treaties may handle disputes with technical commissions, basin commissions, or via government officials. Fifty-two (36 per cent) of the 145 international treaties provide for an advisory council or conflict-addressing body within the parties' governments. Fourteen (10 per cent) refer disputes to a third party or the United Nations. Thirty-two (22 per cent) make no provisions for dispute resolution, and 47 (32 per cent) of the texts are either incomplete or uncertain as to the creation of dispute resolution mechanisms. Can a technical advisory body address disputes? Perhaps, but the treaties do not expressly provide for such activity.

Historically, force or the threat of force has ensured that a water treaty will be followed (e.g. British colonial treaties and the 1947 Allied peace treaty with Italy), but power is less desirable and more expensive as a guarantor of compliance than mutual agreement. Britain could oversee its colonial water treaties because it had one of the more powerful administrative and military organisations in the world. Similarly, agreements on the Nile generally favour Egypt, while those on the Jordan River favour Israel because of their respective power.

While the conflict resolution mechanisms in these treaties do not generally show tremendous sophistication, new enforcement possibilities exist with new monitoring technology. It is now possible to manage a watershed in real time, using a combination of remote sensing and radio-operated control systems. In fact, the next major step in treaty development may well be mutually enforceable provisions, based in part on this technology of objective and highly detailed remote images, better chemical testing, and more accurate flow computations than previously available.

The 145 treaties which govern the world's international watersheds, and the international law on which they are based, are in their respective infancies. More than half of these treaties include no monitoring provisions whatsoever and, perhaps as a consequence, two-thirds do not delineate specific allocations and four-fifths have no enforcement mechanism. Moreover, those treaties which do allocate specific quantities, allocate a fixed amount to all riparian states but one state must then accept the balance of the river flow, regardless of fluctuations.

One problem hampering the development of sophisticated water treaties may have been the difficulty in acquiring information on similar settings. Thus far, each set of negotiators has had to, in effect, independently invent solutions. However, with the compilation of treaties in a single, searchable collection, along with negotiation notes and case studies, the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database hopes to provide researchers and diplomats a useful tool to assess negotiating trends and workable treaty solutions in the future.

Water and the potential for conflict: Humans have long been organised into social groups with more or less clearly defined boundaries within which they conduct their affairs. Water, however, is an ambient resource that neither knows nor respects human boundaries.

The world's 261 international river basins, covering 45 per cent of the Earth's land surface (excluding Antarctica), are shared by more than one nation. Even the most cordial and cooperative of neighbouring nations have found it difficult to achieve mutually acceptable arrangements to govern their transboundary surface waters, even in relatively humid regions where fresh water usually is found in sufficient abundance to satisfy most or all needs. When nations are located in arid regions, conflicts become endemic and intense despite otherwise friendly relations or even membership in a federal union. Little wonder the English language derives the word "rival" from the Latin word "rivalis," meaning persons who live on opposite banks of a river used for irrigation.

International cooperation in negotiating water treaties: International agencies have helped countries negotiate treaties based on international law. The assistance of UNDP for Ethiopia in the Nile River treaty is an example.

The Nile Valley nations perfectly epitomise the scenario regarding the role of customary international law in resolving international disputes over water. Egypt is not a wealthy nation; its per capita gross domestic product is only US $630 per year, making it one of the poorer nations in the Middle East. Yet Egypt is wealthier than Sudan ($540/year), and Egypt and Sudan are far wealthier than Ethiopia ($120/year). As is commonly the case throughout the world, the lower basin nations are wealthier and more highly developed than the upper basin states. Yet without a common border, Egypt cannot easily pose a military threat to Ethiopia or otherwise set about to impose its will directly. Ethiopia, on the other hand, gets the water first. One might think, therefore, that Ethiopia is in a position simply to do as it chooses, regardless of the effect on downstream states. Ethiopia, however, is too poor and too poorly organised to construct the dams and related infrastructure necessary to exploit the Blue Nile without outside financial assistance.

Egypt has succeeded in exploiting its greater political importance to block international financing of Ethiopian dams and related works. As part of this diplomatic effort, Egypt has freely deployed legal arguments, particularly the so-called 'no harm' rule. Egypt most recently did not object to a loan application by the Ethiopians for a small-scale irrigation project, suggesting that there might be some truth to rumours of a secret agreement between the two nations regarding development of the Nile.

Ultimately, Egypt claims an absolute right to the integrity of the river because of the priority of their use. Priority of use, while undoubtedly relevant to an equitable allocation of water among national communities, has never been treated as absolutely controlling in international law. Any other approach would negate the concept of "equitable utilisation" that is the rule of customary international law. Furthermore, for priority in time to override all other values, or even to dominate other values, would hardly be conducive to achieving the developmental equity proclaimed under various banners at the United Nations. To accord such priority to existing uses in the Nile Basin would condemn Ethiopia to remain impoverished and dependent on international food aid to stave off mass starvation, for the benefit of the relatively richer Egyptians and Sudanese. In the Jordan Valley, this approach would condemn the Palestinians to remaining a colonial society utterly dependent on Israeli largesse, and would leave the Jordanians only marginally better off.

The tension between protecting "historic rights" and providing for developmental equity can be managed only if the water is cooperatively managed by the several national communities in such a way as to assure equitable participation in the benefits derived from the water by all communities sharing the basin. Customary international law, in its somewhat primitive stage of development, cannot by itself resolve the management problems of a region.

While uncertainty of legal right can induce cooperation among those sharing a resource, it can also promote severe conflict. Nor can a partitioning of the waters be an adequate resolution when there simply is too little water to divide.

To create the sort of regime necessary to allay conflict and optimise the use and preservation of the resource of the Nile will require a new treaty, one that includes all basin communities, creates appropriate representative basin-wide institutions, and has the clout to enforce its mandates. International practice provides numerous examples as models for institution design. As of early 2003, the UN Development Programme was promoting the negotiation of such a treaty for the Nile region.

The Barak River along with its surrounding ecology and millions of people downstream could benefit from international cooperation to negotiate a fair international water sharing treaty with India under the 'no harm' principle. Striking a Barak Basin Water Sharing Treaty with India will provide such an instrument which will remove suspicions from our minds, and guarantee our rights to the natural flow of Barak.

Mustaque Group Approached US Embassy In Dhaka

Bird had unearthed some curious files at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace left over from a major study at Carnegie concerned with American policy and Bangladesh's War of Independence. The project, headed by Roger Morris, a former aide to Kissinger at the National Security Council, had been aborted under murky circumstances. According to Morris, Kissinger himself had pressed for the project to be abandoned. However, the remaining files, mainly raw interviews with nearly a hundred and fifty American officials ranging from the State Department to the Pentagon and the CIA, was a gold mine of detail for someone with a knowledgeable eye.

During this visit to Washington I decided to contact Eugene Boster, the American Ambassador at the time of the 1975 coup, who was based at the State Department headquarters in the capital. I had met Boster on several occasions in Dhaka and had visited his home when the American Ambassador to New Delhi, Daniel Moynihan, on a brief visit to Bangladesh had asked to meet me to discuss an article I had written for The Washington Post which had been somewhat critical of Moynihan. Ambassador Boster organized a small meeting of the three of us over drinks at his residence. However, I had not met Boster since the 1975 coup. I hadn't been quite ready to see him. I wanted to be certain that when I did I was clear about the specific questions I wanted to pose.

When I reached Washington, I called Ambassador Boster and found him very receptive to a meeting. He had followed my writing on Bangladesh for years and he seemed interested in meeting. We set a time. Kai Bird and I met Boster at the State Department. After shaking hands we soon settled into a corner table in the one of the lounges for what would be a long morning of thoughtful discussion. I told Boster I had been looking into how the coup was actually organized and was troubled about what I was turning up. I had learned a good deal about prior contacts and relationships that Mustaque had with U.S. officials in Calcutta during 1971 which had led to his "house arrest" by Bangladesh's Provisional Government led by Tajuddin Ahmed with the cooperation of the Indian authorities.

Mustaque had been the contact point in Calcutta for a maneuver organized by Kissinger to try to split off a section of the Awami League government in exile that would be prepared to negotiate with the Pakistan Army for a settlement short of independence.

However, on the Pakistanis side there was no promise that Mujib and the Awami League would be allowed to govern Pakistan as the majority party. Mujib was then under arrest in West Pakistan as war raged in East Pakistan, known by then throughout the world as "Bangladesh". 

Mustaque had conducted these negotiations through the Americans without the knowledge of his senior colleagues in the provisional government. When they were discovered, Mustaque was accused of betraying the independence movement and put under house arrest. I had learned about these events from a key member of Mustaque's own staff in Calcutta who had not agreed with the maneuver that Mustaque was involved in.

We had also confirmed key aspects of this account in an interview with Herb Gordon, the American Consul General in Calcutta at the time.

I said to Boster that it was rather curious that Mustaque should reemerge four years later as the man who would be King in the aftermath of Mujib's death. Kai Bird and I were curious to know whether the 1971 

contacts had been renewed between the United States and the Mustaque group. Was it all just a coincidence?

We asked the big question: Did the Embassy have any prior contact with the group that had planned and executed the coup against Mujib? We waited for what we expected would be the standard diplomatic answer which would leave us none the wiser.

Boster looked us in the eye and told us facts that we did not expect to hear. He laid it all out. For me it was a bombshell. We would later report, "According to a highly placed U.S. Embassy diplomat, who has insisted upon strict confidentiality, officials at the U.S. Embassy were approached in late 1974 by persons intending to overthrow the government of Sheik Mujibur Rahman. According to this Embassy source a series of meetings took place with Embassy personnel between November 1974 and January 1975.

..According to [this] senior Embassy official, 'In January 1975 we came to an understanding in the Embassy that we would stay out of it and disengage from those people. I can't say whether there was any approach to the Embassy by any of these people in the period from January to August [1975]. In the period before that they did try to approach us.'" 

Our source for this remarkable statement was the American Ambassador to Bangladesh in 1975, Eugene Davis Boster. Boster went further in his comments to us. He confirmed that the group that had approached the U.S. Embassy in the November 1974 to January 1975 period was in fact the Mustaque group. The Ambassador said that in January 1975 he personally had given strict instructions that no Embassy personnel were to have further contact with this or any other group contemplating a coup d'etat. This extended to the CIA Station Chief, Philip Cherry and his staff.

However, Boster believed an "end run" may have been carried out circumventing his authority as Ambassador. He found it more than a simple coincidence that the same men he had ordered all contact broken with had turned up the day of the coup, amidst great bloodshed, announcing they had taken power.

When we asked him if he thought Phil Cherry or the CIA staff had continued contact with those planning to overthrow Mujib without the knowledge of the Ambassador, Boster replied, "Let me answer this question theoretically, outside the context of Bangladesh. No, this kind of thing is not done by the Station Chief, But, as one American to another, it has been done. There have been lapses. We should always be informed by the Station Chief about his activities or contacts. But, I cannot guarantee that Cherry was not making contacts that were not approved by the Ambassador." We agreed on this phrasing where he referred to himself in the third person. However, Boster was convinced that contact had continued and the men who carried out the coup correctly or wrongly believed they would be accepted by the United States once Mujib was gone. If they failed, we wouldn't know who they were. If they succeeded, the United States would quietly back the regime.

It was an extraordinary moment. The American Ambassador was alleging to two American journalists that his CIA Station Chief had aided and abetted the coup against the explicit instructions of the Ambassador.

Together we speculated on whom in Washington or Langley would have had the authority to give a "green light" and countermand the Ambassador's instructions. Following Richard Nixon's resignation a year earlier and the emergence of Gerald Ford, as a weak presidential figure, there was only one "President of Foreign Policy" in Washington and this was Henry Kissinger. But, would Kissinger who distained the smaller nations in favor of the mighty powers have even bothered with a peripheral coup on the fringe of his very grand horizon?

Personally, I was then skeptical about Kissinger covertly reaching into obscure details of military plotting in far off Bangladesh. I maintained this view for quite awhile even after interviewing one of Kissinger's former aides on the National Security Council, Roger Morris, who wrote a highly critical biography of his former employer entitled Uncertain Greatness: Henry Kissinger & American Foreign Policy.

In September 1978 I sat down with Morris to talk about Bangladesh and Henry Kissinger. Whether one agrees with him or not, his comments were particularly cogent. Morris had the following observation:

"In early 1975 I was interviewing for my book a man who was then one of Kissinger's closest aides and most senior confidants. I have known him well. In utter seriousness, and not at all as a criticism of Kissinger's policy he said there had been three nemeses of American foreign policy in the Kissinger era. These were the three 'most hated men' on Kissinger's 'foreign enemies list'. He said they were Allende, Thieu and Mujib. It was not a matter of having allies or having enemies or adversaries, but simply these people had upset the apple cart in various ways. Allende is clear enough. Obviously he though Thieu, as the record now shows, was an obstruction to the deal he was trying to cut with the North Vietnamese. He was always having to go back to Saigon to bomb or to do something to get Thieu to agree. 

Mujib, however, I would have thought, wasn't quite in that league. Nevertheless, Kissinger did feel at the time [1971] that the events in East Pakistan were so damaging, so distracting, and so potentially disastrous for his China diplomacy on which so much else restedincluding the Vietnam negotiations; and here was this unnecessary irritationon the flankof an obstreperous politician who was not behaving in the proper way...Instead of understanding that these forces were outside his control and it wasn't a matter of thwarting Henry Kissinger or his plans for the world, there was a highly personal element in Kissinger's diplomacy and therefore an element of revenge...

BY : 

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.