After years of isolation and sanctions, US-Burma relations have seen improvements
in recent months. What prospects does this rapprochement have? This article
analyzes the bilateral relationship in historical perspective.
US-Burma relationship was mostly cordial in the years following Burma’s
independence from the British in 1948. It strained with the Burmese military
coup in 1962, and worsened in the aftermath of the 1988 mass uprising and the
subsequent 1990 general election.
The uprising and general election
marked the beginning of the United States’ isolationist policy from Burma. The
massacre of thousands of demonstrators and the nullification of the election
result in Myanmar stood in stark contrast to America’s fundamental diplomatic
goals of spreading and promoting democracy and human rights.
consequence of diplomatic fall-out was evidenced by the downgrading of the US
representative in Burma from “ambassador” to “charge d’affaires.”
mission of the last ambassador, Burton Levin, was terminated in September 1990,
four months after the May general election. Ambassador Levin was replaced by
Charge d’Affaires Franklin P. Huddle Jr., and since then no full diplomatic
relationship has been resumed.
Successive US governments, under both
republican and democratic administrations, maintained limited contact with the
Burmese government. This began with the administration of president George
Bush, and continued during the Clinton administration.
troubles in the relationship were exacerbated by the imposition of a broad range
of sanctions, primarily during the administrations of presidents Clinton and
George W. Bush in the 1990s and the 2000s respectively. The incumbent President
Obama renewed sanctions after he assumed office in January 2009.
actions of the executive branch have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the
legislative branch, and vice-versa. Since the sanctions were first imposed,
there has been no tangible disagreement among US lawmakers over the question of
renewing them, despite other ideological and strategic differences along party
lines. Campaigns by advocacy groups, and the situation inside Burma, provided
adequate empirical evidence to justify continued sanctions.
behind the US sanctions policy is to punish the Burmese military government for
its gross human rights violations, and for not honoring the results of the 1990
elections. Through sanctions, the US government intended to pressure the Burmese
government to pursue the path of democratization.
While the US pursued an
isolationist approach, the Burmese government leaned toward other international
actors in the region, such as China, India, and members of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to sustain its rule and for economic
Besides economic and military reasons, the Burmese government
also befriended China and Russia for their veto power at the UN Security
The Burmese government’s policy was to hold on to power for as
long as it could despite sacrificing the benefits that would possibly accrue
from cooperating with the Western nations, particularly the US and the
While the US and the EU kept Burma at arm’s length, the economic and
strategic interests of several Asian countries led the latter to engage with
Burma, in defiance of the US. Such conflicting interests and approaches from the
international community well served the needs of the Burmese military
The US-Burma policy entered an important chapter when the Obama
administration announced its official policy in September 2009. President Obama
adopted a dual-track policy: maintaining sanctions while simultaneously engaging
the Burmese government at senior-level dialogues.
The engagement policy
provided a platform for the US to work with both pro-sanctions and
pro-engagement groups. The engagement policy was boosted by the confirmation of
Derek J. Mitchell as special representative and policy coordinator for Burma in
August 2011. His appointment created the opportunity for more high-level
meetings between the two nations, and a venue for building mutual
The progress of bilateral relationship was contingent upon
political development inside Burma. The first sign of political thaw emerged
when President Thein Sein invited Aung San Suu Kyi, then general secretary of
the National League for Democracy (NLD), for a meeting in August 2011. The
meeting was followed by NLD’s re-registration (it had been disbanded in
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma in December
2011 significantly boosted the engagement strategy. This top diplomatic visit,
the first since the one made by John Foster Dulles in 1955, was arranged after
the Burmese government implemented a series of tangible democratic reforms, such
as reaching cease-fire agreements with armed ethnic groups, reconciliation with
the NLD, and the releasing of political prisoners.
After the successful
by-election in April 2012, the US reciprocated with some key initiatives,
including Washington’s intention to re-establish the US Agency for International
Development (USAID) mission to Burma, and to lend support for a normal UN
Development Program (UNDP) country program.
The Obama administration also
plans to authorize funds to be sent by private US entities to Burma for
non-profit activities, to facilitate travel to the US for select Burmese
officials and parliamentarians, and to begin a process of easing bans on the
exportation of US financial services and investment.
announcement of these key steps on April 4 by the secretary of state, the United
States Treasury Department has issued a general license authorizing certain
financial transactions in support of humanitarian, religious, and other
not-for-profit activities in Burma, including projects for government
accountability, conflict resolution and civil society development.
developments are indicative of the improvement in the bilateral
Despite this, some fundamental questions remain unanswered.
For example, will the present Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-led
government be willing to amend a constitution that guarantees military
dominance, including the reservation of 25 percent of seats in the parliament?
Will the central government be willing to grant autonomy to ethnic minorities,
which has been the root cause of the country’s insurgency problems? Will the
government hold a free and fair election in 2015? If so, will the result of such
an election be honored? Until these core issues are addressed, the political
problems in Burma will persist. Without their proper resolution, Burma can
revert to either military dictatorship or another form of authoritarianism. A
political environment of this nature will only be a hindrance to the full
normalization of the US-Burma diplomatic relationship.The writer is
general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His general research
interests include political transition, democratization, human rights, ethnic
conflict and identity politics. His research focuses on the politics of South
and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. He has written
numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and non-academic analytical articles on the
politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally.
Kukiforum News www.kukiforum.com
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