US Fortifies Friendship During Post-Poll Diplomatic Visit

By Feliz Solomon 18 January 2016

RANGOON — The United States has branded itself a “full and committed partner” as Burma continues toward democracy, departing from Washington’s former reticence in light of what looks likely to be a peaceful transfer of power to a freely elected government this year.

Speaking to reporters from the capital Naypyidaw, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the Nov. 8 general election as a “testament” to the decades-long effort to bring about reform in the former military state.

“This is a moment of great opportunity,” Blinken said, “a moment for all of Myanmar’s political leaders to work together to form a new government and address differences through dialogue.”

The deputy secretary noted a number of outstanding issues on which the United States stands ready to assist in overcoming, chief among them economic growth, national reconciliation, the continued detention of political prisoners and the dire humanitarian situation in Arakan State.

Blinken last visited Burma in May 2015, at the height of a refugee crisis in the coastal state, where violence between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 left more than 100 people dead and upwards of 100,000 others displaced.

Most of those affected were Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority that was denied the right to vote in the recent polls. Many of those relegated to displacement camps have since fled, some falling prey to human trafficking syndicates along the Andaman coast.

Blinken also took a more affirmative stance on Burma’s peace process, an effort undertaken by the current administration to end decades of civil conflict between the government and the country’s more than 20 non-state armed groups. The United States has in the past taken an arm’s-length approach to the divisive issue.

Pledging that “the United States will do whatever stakeholders in this historic effort believe will be helpful,” Blinken urged once again that the outgoing government end all offensives and allow unfettered humanitarian access to civilians affected by the conflict, who now number more than 100,000.

On Monday, Blinken met with outgoing President Thein Sein, Burma Army second-in-command Soe Win and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide victory in the November poll.

The NLD will occupy the majority of both houses of Parliament when it convenes on Feb. 1, and has the power to select the next president and one of two vice presidents. The other will be nominated by the military, which is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in the national Parliament.

Suu Kyi herself is ineligible for the presidency due to a constitutional clause—believed to have been written expressly to undermine her—disqualifying anyone with a foreign spouse or children. Her late husband held a British passport, as do her two children.

The United States restored diplomatic relations with Burma in 2012, ending nearly two decades of reproach, after the former military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government led by former military strongman Thein Sein.

Embrace of the former pariah state has at times been criticized for the speedy lifting of sanctions that were put in place to punish the regime and its benefactors, as well as what some viewed as premature engagement with the country’s notorious military.

The re-engagement has conversely been viewed as an achievement of the Obama administration’s rapprochement policy toward foreign adversaries, as well as a success of his Asia rebalance strategy.

Before arriving in Burma, Blinken traveled to Tokyo where he met with representatives of the foreign ministries of Japan and the Republic of Korea to discuss security and other regional issues, particularly the threat of North Korea to stability in the region. The deputy secretary will continue on to visit South Korea and China.