US Must Walk a Fine Line on Burma

The days when people believed that Burma’s only real problem was its hated dictatorship are over. The remnants of that regime, while still with us, are now just one of many obstacles to progress that we must contend with. Ethnic tensions, gross economic disparities, failing institutions and a woeful lack of capacity among the country’s leaders and the broader population will continue to plague Burma’s efforts to rebuild itself for years to come.

The good news, however, is that the need for reform on many fronts is more widely recognized now than at any other time in the past. But to see it through the many challenges that lie ahead, Burma must have reliable friends.

That is why this month’s visits to the United States by President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be an important test of whether Washington is prepared to be the partner that Burma needs right now to pull itself out of the morass of its past.

Suu Kyi’s two trips abroad so far this year were major triumphs, and when she leaves for the US on Sunday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, she can expect the same sort of adulation that greeted her in Thailand and Europe.

Thein Sein, meanwhile, will make his second visit to the US a week later to attend the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It will be his first trip since becoming president a year and a half ago, and comes amid growing international praise for his reform efforts.

In a report released on Monday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank, recommended that President Barack Obama give equal weight to both visits, to help maintain the delicate balance that is emerging in Burma as former foes become possible partners in changing the country’s direction.

“To meet only with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could be perceived as unbalanced and as a slight to President U Thein Sein—a failure to appreciate the courageous role the latter has played in launching political reforms in a country ruled by the military for five decades,” the report, based on a visit to Burma in August, said.

This is sound advice indeed, as even members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) have said that they don’t want to see the president’s visit eclipsed, lest it create tensions between the two sides. (Although the government and the NLD are still fundamentally at odds over a host of issues—most notably the status of the military-drafted 2008 Constitution—they seem to share a common fear of the military reasserting itself politically.)

But Washington’s balancing act should not be confined to even-handed treatment of Burma’s two most important leading figures. It must also ensure that its commercial interests don’t outweigh its commitment to Burma’s sustainable economic development, and that its strategic concerns vis-à-vis China don’t come at the expense of Burma’s stable relations with its far more powerful neighbor.

To his credit, President Obama has already demonstrated that he is capable of managing a careful, nuanced approach to Burma, a country that has long resisted international efforts to address rampant rights abuses and other symptoms of dysfunctional rule. Whether he (or his successor, if he does not win re-election in November) can keep this up is another matter.

To date, the US has kept its distance from the government-led peace process, which aims to end decades of ethnic conflict. At some point, however, it would do well to take a more proactive role in efforts to address the contentious issue of ethnic rights in Burma, perhaps by steering the government toward a political model that better accommodates the country’s cultural diversity.

In the meantime, Thein Sein should do his part to demonstrate that Burma is serious about cultivating better relations with the US by settling a relatively simple issue—the release of the country’s remaining political prisoners.

Although this would be just one step among many yet to come, it would help to lay the groundwork for a further relaxation of sanctions—particularly the lifting of a ban on Burmese imports—and, more importantly, cement a relationship that will prove crucial to Burma’s future peace and prosperity.

6 Responses to US Must Walk a Fine Line on Burma

  1. Kaung lay swa, kaung lay swa, kaung lay swa. Good for you, Irrawaddy. The best of the best editorial, that illuminates “the problematics” that Myanmar as a Nation and its people and society presently at its historical conjuncture will have to attend to in the coming years of political transition and socio- economic transformation.

  2. With all of the world lifting sanctions against Burma, Burma should seek out the best that the world has to offer. Some of this can be found in the US, but, then again, the US President could teach Than Shwe some tricks. (Google “Tony Rezko” “Wikipedia” to see how Obama tweaked some real estate deals to get his Chicago gangster friend to help him buy his home, without theoretically breaking the law. And, no, I’m not a Republican.) It may sound funny, but I’m worried about Thein Sein getting corrupted by the US. The US has plenty of its own faults. But it also has some of the best things on offer to the world, and let’s hope that Thein Sein discovers those. I’m sure The Lady will take care of herself, and this shouldn’t be viewed as a beauty pageant between Burmese celebrities.

  3. Purposes of forthcoming visits to USA of our two leaders are fundamentally not the same..President U Thein Sein’s is to attend the 61st UNGA Session and Daw Suu’s is to receive awards given in absentia during her house arrests? Of will be gracious of the host country if both leaders could be received and treated evenly by the White House.President Obama and his administration are well aware of the importance of the two visitors’ outstanding roles in our country’s unfolding history.President Obama’s engagement policy is in place and beginning to show tangible results.Given time and support we shall develope and grow out of the frozen time capsule.Due to geographic misfortune and policy folly our people were obliged to work to the tunes of a powerful neighbor.Now that history provides us an alternative counterweight leverage for stability and progress not only for Myanmar/Burma ,equally also for all ASEAN -members ,we should not miss nor misuse this opportunity.Viva Daw Suu and President U Thein Sein!!!

  4. Suu Kyi’s unwavering determination is so encouraging while Thein Sein’s words are not so presidential. Thein Sein promises one thing to the ethnics about ceasefire but different thing is happening in reality. I am glad Suu Kyi did not visit communist country first but chose Thailand which is democratic. I am afraid that Thein Sein’s way of reform might end up like the way China reforms just for business. We need way more than that. Money is not our ambition when we asked for Democracy and Freedom. Thein Sein’s trip to the US be blessed for the Union of Myanmar.

  5. The political leaders of Myanmar will be well-advised to carefully sort out the media hype and propagada advocating and outright promotion the need for some kind of partership with the U.S. and always rubbing in the “lack of capacity” that America can provide. The expatriate Burmese media keeps harping this tune. But glaringly left out is “at what price?”. America’s trackrecord of how its friends and partners end up finally is something even we Amerians are ashamed of. One need only to look current situation in Egypt. Mubarak was America’s friend and friend of America for over 30 years but was abandonned like a “hot potato” in a matter of weeks when things got tough. Condie Rice, Tony Blair,Sarcozy all went to Ghadafi tent in Tripoli to befriend him and his sons. We all witnesed the brutal image of Ghadafi’s end. Both Egypt and Libya are in serious trouble to put mildly. The late Shah of Iran’s end and the Diem brothers’ end in Saigon looks like ancient history.

    Friendship and partnership with Ameriica will come at a price, a very high price and so before advocating and promoting, those pushing “their cause or agenda”(whateve it may be),should ask if a counry like Myanmer and its people can afford such a price?

    Naphetchun MaungSein

    California USA

  6. I doubt this is a good approach for Burma as such. US is searching for partners to contain China. Falling into that trap will be detrimental for the growth of South Asia with Thailand already showing some turmoil. Instead ASEAN member nations should be avoiding the US and backing Japan to balance the power struggle in the region. It is better to back nations that might be affected by a conflict than one that is far away and would let go off its hand when in need.

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