While Washington’s engagement with Burma is a demonstration of the triumph of diplomacy over isolation, the future depends on Yangon’s commitment to democratic processes

The recent upturn in the United States’ relations with Myanmar — a key neighbour of India — was the outcome of years of diplomatic manoeuvring following the 1988 democracy uprising and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military government’s refusal to acknowledge the 1990 general election results. It was also a result of the U.S. government’s dual-track policy of using carrots and sticks.

Unlike India, which moved to normalise relations with SLORC by the mid-1990s, the U.S. made some fundamental demands as a condition for normalising bilateral ties. These included: the release of all political prisoners (over 2,000 held in different prisons across Myanmar in the beginning of 2012), inclusive dialogue with opposition parties and ethnic minorities, adherence to United Nations non-proliferation agreements on nuclear weapons and an end to any illicit cooperation with North Korea, greater accountability on human rights issues, and an end to violence against ethnic minorities. The U.S. also asked the Myanmar government to hold free and fair by-elections.

Steady steps

On January 13, 2012, a total of 651 political prisoners were either released or offered presidential pardon by the Myanmar government. Those released included prominent political prisoners, including leaders of the 1988 democracy uprising, the ex-military intelligence chief and deposed Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, and ethnic Shan leaders Hkun Htun Oo and Sai Nyunt Lwin, who were sentenced to 93- and 85-year prison sentences respectively.

Second, the Thein Sein government signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups: the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Chin National Front (CNF), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Karen National Union (KNU), Karen Peace Council (KPC), National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA), and Shan State Army–North (SSA-N).

Third, the government successfully held by-elections in April last year. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in 43 of the 44 seats it contested. One seat each was won by the ruling USDP and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP). The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate captured the seat where the NLD candidate was disqualified. The SNDP won a seat from the Shan state. The participation of the NLD and other political parties associated with ethnic minorities boosted the government’s claim for legitimacy and credibility of its seven-step “road map” towards democracy that initially began in 2003.

As the Obama administration promised to reciprocate action for action, Derek Mitchell, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, was confirmed as the new U.S. Ambassador on June 29. U.S. investment sanctions were lifted on July 11, which was followed by the suspension of import bans on goods from Myanmar on September 27. The lifting of investment sanctions enabled U.S. companies and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to begin re-establishing links with Myanmar.

The U.S. made four important achievements from the improvement in relations: it demonstrated the triumph of diplomacy over isolation; it won an assurance that Myanmar had not engaged in any illicit engagement with North Korea on nuclear programmes; it was able to emerge as a symbol of democracy and human rights around the world; and it got to build a firmer foundation of its presence in Southeast Asia.

In addition, the improvement of relations enabled the U.S. to re-establish the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission to Myanmar, to lend support for a normal UNDP country programme, and to facilitate travel to the U.S. for select Myanmar officials and parliamentarians. It also paved the way for the U.S. and Myanmar to cooperate on the recovery of the remains of Americans missing in action or taken prisoners of war during World War II.

By improving bilateral relations with the United States, the Myanmar government achieved the goal of legitimacy it had long sought. Until the April by-elections, the U.S. and other western nations still considered the results of the 2010 general elections unrepresentative of the people. The other major achievement was the lifting of sanctions.

Obama’s visit

The positive diplomacy culminated in President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar on November 19, the first ever visit by a sitting U.S. President. His historic tour was, however, criticised by several rights groups, which argued that it was premature to make such a high-profile visit when violence still continued in the Kachin and Rakhine states, and when political prisoners remained behind bars. The Obama administration said the President’s visit was to acknowledge the democratic reforms and to encourage further reforms.

On a positive note, both governments must be congratulated for taking the necessary steps to improve bilateral relations. However, the primary concern now is whether political gestures from the Myanmar government will lead to addressing ethnic minority problems, which remains at the heart of decades-old conflicts in the country. When can the Myanmar government sign a ceasefire agreement with ethnic Kachins, and will the signed ceasefire agreements with various groups lead to guaranteeing autonomy?

Moreover, will the 2008 constitution be amended to remove the inherent role of the military in politics, which is currently guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in Parliament without election? Will all remaining political prisoners be released unconditionally? Can the Rohingya problem be resolved amicably? Uncertainty remains as to how the U.S. government will respond in case of the non-fulfilment of these expectations.

Overall, 2012 was a significant year in terms of diplomatic rapprochement. Nevertheless, the longevity and durability of bilateral relations between the two nations will be contingent upon how democratic transition progresses inside Myanmar.

(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, concentrating on Burma/Myanmar.)

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