Guest Column

Reflections on US-Burma Relations

By David I. Steinberg 15 November 2012

The record of the past year in US-Burma relations may be unique in modern independent Burmese history. At no time since Burma attained independence from the British in 1948 have relations with the United States been so positive.

This seems counterintuitive. At present, Burma has a quasi-representative elected government that it is too early to call a democracy, emanating from an authoritarian military junta with many of the same cast of characters. It is emerging from a hardened shell of censorship, control and human rights abuses with the attendant aches of such a tumultuous event. Its 2008 referendum on the new Constitution was stage-managed, and the 2010 elections deeply flawed. Until a few years ago, the US under both the Democratic Clinton and Republican Bush administrations effectively called for “regime change” in this country. So how does the current era compare to the civilian period (1948-62), with its vibrant representative government (except for the military “caretaker” administration of 1958-60) and an elite very much geared to Western concepts of governance?

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

Think back to those days of yesteryear, as US radio dramas used to say. Burma was neutral in the Cold War, and both Mao Zedong and then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles thought from opposite vantage points that neutralism was immoral. Burma had vibrant, multiple underground and above-ground communist movements and strong anti-colonial and anti-Western voices. At the same time, the CIA was covertly (but obviously to one and all) supporting Kuomintang (KMT) Chinese nationalist troops in Shan State. Burma even brought that case to the UN Security Council, and expelled the USAID mission. So although U Nu might be characterized as pro-US or anti-communist (see his play “The People Win Through”) and thought that capitalist “greed” was not a good Buddhist virtue, his government had to walk a very fine line. There was palpable tension in the diplomatic community during that period.

After the military coup of 1962, relations between the two states deteriorated. It was not simply the Burmese Way to Socialism that rubbed Washington the wrong way—it was also the autocratic, autarkic, single-party, military-dominated regime run by an enthusiastic but developmentally incompetent military elite. Even the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, US recognition of the People’s Republic of China and the reopening of US economic aid, military training and anti-narcotics programs in Burma in 1979 did not resolve the issues. The relationship remained delicate and deteriorated further following the failed people’s revolution of 1988, the subsequent military coup and the junta’s disregard of the results of the May 1990 elections swept by the opposition National League for Democracy.

The visit of President Obama is the culmination of this past year’s positive changes in US-Burma relations that were intensified since the early December 2011 visit of Secretary of State Clinton. It will be a fillip to the extensive reforms that President Thein Sein has so courageously initiated and that have been the backbone of improved international ties.

Although critics may decry the presidential visit as too early in the change process, which is underway and yet to be fully implemented, and although major issues remain unresolved, such as minority problems, President Obama has the opportunity to move the reforms forward. He also has the chance to reassure China that the US interests in a positive transformation of the Burmese economy and society are no threat to Chinese interests in the region, as China and Burma share a long and generally open frontier. Burma has always had to pay attention to China—first to even a weak Nationalist regime and then to a strong PRC. As one author wrote fifty years ago, although Burma was neutral, it was always in China’s shadow. That will not change.

The Obama administration’s change on policy and opening up to Burma has been of mutual advantage. Both sent signals early in 2009 that the time was ripe for movement, and the US administration’s responses to Burmese initiatives have been measured and successful, even moving the US Congressional agenda with the help of Aung San Suu Kyi. The responsibility for progress rests with the Burmese, but the US has wisely pursued change.

In this period of relative euphoria over the relationship, however, the US must be careful to moderate its impact and influence, and not be perceived as being too intrusive, dominant or demanding. Burma has always been emotionally neutral—it has never been anyone’s “client state.” Here the Chinese could teach the US a lesson on how to avoid an overweening presence, a lesson they perhaps learned a bit too late.

We should thus welcome the visit of President Obama and the US commitment to appropriate moral and practical assistance to the reform process and to the new Burma that we hope will emerge.

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest volume (with Fan Hongwei) is “Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence” (2012).