U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just concluded a historic trip to Myanmar. Her visit heralds a breakthrough in relations between the two countries, and a shift in political dynamics in Southeast Asia could be anticipated. While optimism is warranted, it should be tempered by caution; Myanmar has a long way to go before relations between it and the United States — and indeed the world — can be normalized.
Myanmar’s military rulers have long displayed indifference to the accepted norms of state behavior. When defeated in elections, they ignored the results, arresting the opposition (and rightful winners) and maintaining an iron grip on power. When ethnic groups demanded respect for their culture and some say in their future, the government waged war, committing horrific abuses of human rights in the process.
The country’s leaders have allegedly enriched themselves, their families and friends, treating Myanmar’s rich patrimony as their personal possessions, while remaining indifferent to the poverty of the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens. And they have embraced other like-minded governments, such as that of North Korea, engaging in dubious deals and questionable transactions.
This behavior earned the Myanmar government criticism and isolation. Yet in recent years, a change has been in the air. The military transferred power to a civilian government (many of whose members only recently took off their uniforms), wrote a new constitution, and began to undertake political reforms.
Political prisoners have been released, opposition parties legalized, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi released from house arrest.
Recognizing these changes and hoping to prod further reform, U.S. President Barack Obama sent Ms. Clinton to Myanmar last week. It was the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in 50 years and heralds a potential breakthrough in relations between the two countries.
In Myanmar, Ms. Clinton told Myanmar President Thein Sein that she “came to assess whether the time is right for a new chapter in our shared history.” Noting that the U.S. is ready to “reward reforms with steps to lessen [Myanmar’s] isolation and improve the lives of its citizens,” she announced that the Obama administration would allow the country to participate in a U.S.-backed group of Mekong River countries; lift the U.S. ban on Myanmar’s participation in the International Monetary Fund; and back expanded initiatives in the fields of health, micro finance and counter-narcotics.
This is a limited range of carrots, but Ms. Clinton held out future benefits such as upgraded diplomatic ties and the lifting of the economic sanctions that block almost all U.S. commercial transactions with Myanmar if it “keeps moving in the direction.” Key benchmarks include the release of all political prisoners, ending violence against ethnic groups and genuine steps toward national reconciliation.
Mr. Thein Sein reciprocated the optimistic tone, calling the visit a “historic milestone.” He reportedly acknowledged his country’s shortcomings, blaming a lack of experience with democracy. He then asked for U.S. help in continuing and consolidating the transition from military to civilian rule.
After meeting the president, Ms. Clinton dined with Ms. Suu Kyi and the next day visited her in the home that served as her prison for the 17 years she was under house arrest. Ms. Suu Kyi backed the “careful and calibrated” steps the U.S. has taken, while backing the Myanmar government’s steps toward reform. While conceding that Myanmar is not yet on the road to democracy, she was confident that reaching that destination is possible “with the help and understanding of our friends.”
That careful calibration is key to the success of this process. While the decision making in Myanmar is opaque, it seems as though the leadership has recognized that its policies have not served them or the country well. Being shunned by the West has thrust Myanmar into the embrace of China, and while all foreign policy choices in Asia that concern China are not necessarily zero-sum equations, it is very likely that the Myanmar leadership felt that it preferred to have choices.
While backing U.S. objectives, Japan has not walked in lockstep with Washington. Tokyo has been more forthcoming: It froze new official development assistance (ODA) in 2003 (but maintained humanitarian aid) until earlier this year. Japan has also recognized the progress that has been made and called for still more political prisoners to be released.
As always, the trick is to ensure that Myanmar’s negotiating partners are reading from the same script. Incentives for change only work if other countries do not undercut them. Japan’s engagement has shown Myanmar that reform brings benefits and the U.S. move is proof that it too is sincere. But all partner governments must endorse the same goals and use the same benchmarks. Myanmar should be rewarded for progress, but progress must be genuine. That process appears to be under way. Japan, with the U.S. and other nations, must nurture it.
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