Gauging US-Burma relations in 2012
The longevity and durability of bilateral relations between the two nations will be contingent upon how democratic transition progresses inside Burma.
Obama with Myanmar's Opposition Leader. Photo: REUTERS
The reestablishment of US-Burma relations in 2012 was the outcome of years of
diplomatic maneuvering following the downgrading of US representation in Burma
from ambassador to chargé d’affaires in the aftermath of 1988’s democratic
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 US government’s dual-track, carrot- and-stick
As a condition for normalizing bilateral relations, the US
government made some fundamental demands: the release of all political prisoners
(approximately 2,000, held in prisons across Burma in the beginning of 2012),
inclusive dialogue with opposition parties and ethnic minorities, adherence to
the UN non-proliferation agreements on nuclear weapons and the ending of any
illicit cooperation with North Korea, greater accountability on human rights
issues, and ending violence against ethnic minorities.
The US government
also asked the Burmese government to hold free and fair
Firstly, a total of 651 political prisoners were either
released or offered presidential pardon by the Burmese government on January 13.
Those released included prominent political prisoners, including leaders of the
1988 democratic 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 years in prison
Secondly, the Thein Sein government signed cease-fire
agreements with several ethnic armed groups: 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 (SSAN).
Thirdly, the government held
April by-elections successfully. The NLD 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 USDP candidate captured the seat where the NLD candidate was
disqualified. The SNDP won a seat from the Shan state. The participation of NLD
and other political parties associated with ethnic minorities boosted the
government’s claim for legitimacy and credibility of its seven-step “road-map”
toward 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 US ambassador on June 29. The US investment sanctions were lifted on July
11, which was followed by the suspension of import bans on goods from Burma on
September 27. The lifting of investment sanctions enabled US companies and
international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund to begin reestablishing links with Burma.
relations with Burma, the US has achieved four important things: the triumph of
diplomacy over isolation; assurance that Burma has not engaged in any illicit
engagement with North Korea on nuclear programs; reinforced its role as a symbol
of democracy and human rights around the world; and a firmer foundation for its
presence in Southeast Asia.
In addition, the improvement of relations
enabled the US government to reestablish the US Agency for International
Development (USAID) mission to Burma, lend support for a normal UN Development
Program (UNDP) country program, and facilitate travel to the US for select
Burmese officials and parliamentarians. It also paved the way for US and Burma
to cooperate on the recovery of Americans missing in action or prisoners of war
from World War II.
By improving bilateral relations with the United
States, the Burmese government achieved its long-sought goal of
Until the April by-elections, the US 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
The positive diplomacy culminated in President Barack Obama’s
visit to Burma on November 19, the first-ever visit by a sitting US president.
The historic visit was, however, criticized by several rights groups, that
argued it was premature to make such a high-profile visit when violence still
continued in Kachin and Rakhine states, and when political prisoners still
remained behind bars. The Obama administration said the president’s visit was to
acknowledge the democratic reforms and to encourage further reforms.
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 Burmese government will lead to addressing
ethnic minority problems, which remain the crux of decades-old conflicts in the
When can the Burmese government sign cease-fire agreement with
ethnic Kachins, and will the signed cease-fire 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 currently
guarantees 25 percent of seats in the parliament without election? Will all
remaining political prisoners be released unconditionally? Can the Rohingya
problem be resolved amicably? Uncertainty remains as to how the US government
will respond in case of the non-fulfillment of these
Overall, 2012 was a significant year in terms of diplomatic
Nevertheless, the longevity and durability of bilateral
relations between the two nations will be contingent upon how democratic
transition progresses inside Burma.
Te writer is general secretary of the
US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics
of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/ Myanmar. His latest
article, titled “US-Burma Relations: Change of Politics under Bush and Obama
Administrations,” is scheduled for publication in Strategic Analysis by
Routledge in March 2013.