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 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama with Myanmar's Opposition Leader 370
(photo credit: 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 policy.
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 by-elections.
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 respectively.
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.
In reestablishing 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 legitimacy.
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 sanctions.
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.
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 Burmese government will lead to addressing ethnic minority problems, which remain the crux of decades-old conflicts in the country.
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 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 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.