On Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card, Burma Gets a Pass

By Aung Zaw 19 August 2014

Next year’s elections in Burma will be a key indicator of how leaders in the country want to move forward, with many an assessment of the reform process hinging on the outcome. Among those who will be watching the election returns will be US President Barack Obama, for whom the stakes may be a bit higher than most: Having failed elsewhere in the world, Obama in 2014 finds his foreign policy assailed by critics, and his legacy on the global stage in doubt. In Burma, the US president has taken credit for reforms enacted since 2011, but has Obama gone “all in” on a questionable hand?

Many in dissident circles have warned that there should be a Plan B.

What if, as in 2010, the election is rigged and conducted without transparency? What if it lacks inclusivity? Will the United States stand by such a government as a partner in reform, as it has since Burma’s nominally civilian leadership took power in 2011?

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visited Burma earlier this month and said the United States would do everything it can to encourage reform in the country, especially by supporting nationwide elections in 2015.

“Next year’s election will absolutely be a benchmark moment for the whole world to be able to assess the direction that Burma is moving in,” he said in Naypyidaw.

Kerry met Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the latter of whom remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into next year’s pivotal elections. She met Kerry at her lakeside residence in Rangoon, the same venue where she received Obama in 2012—when the country’s reforms were subject to much less skepticism than today.

Indeed, many Burmese were counting on the United States to inject some life into a reform program increasingly viewed as stalled. Kerry would not leave the country empty-handed, the thinking went, without a concrete expression of the government’s commitment to further reform.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Details of Kerry’s talks with both Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, however, were not made public, with Kerry revealing little other than to say that he had a “frank” discussion with the president.

He offered a slightly more critical assessment in remarks at the East-West Center in Honolulu following his trip to Burma.

“Defining a new role for the military; reforming the Constitution and supporting free and fair elections; ending a decades-long civil war; and guaranteeing in law the human rights that Burma’s people have been promised in name,” he said, referring to some of the challenges still facing the Southeast Asian nation.

“All of this while trying to attract more investment, combating corruption, protecting the country’s forests and other resources. These are the great tests of Burma’s transition. And we intend to try to help, but in the end the leadership will have to make the critical choices.”

Underneath all the rhetoric on democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections, there is major US commercial interest in resource-rich Burma, a country strategically located between China and India.

Before Kerry’s visit, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker in June made her first visit to Burma, a strong indication of Washington’s high-level commercial push. The United States opened the way for economic engagement with an easing of sanctions on Burma in 2012. Last week the United States went further, waiving remaining sanctions on Burma’s timber sector for one year. The decision was not without controversy, prompting an outcry from some civil society groups.

During a visit in which she opened a new Commercial Service Office at the US Embassy in Rangoon, Pritzker stressed the United States’ commitment to closer economic ties. As of April 30, 2014, American companies had plans to invest US$244 million in Burma’s economy, and US exports had increased from $9.8 million in 2010 to $145.7 million in 2013.

“Our Commercial Service officers help to increase opportunities globally, for our businesses and for yours,” she said, adding that US companies would bring technical know-how and a commitment to corporate social responsibility.

US businesses are coming to Burma in what looks like an increasingly unstoppable tide, and to facilitate investment, some blacklisted cronies may benefit. One already has, with Kerry staying at a blacklisted tycoon’s hotel in Naypyidaw during his recent visit to Burma. Forced to respond to questions about the sleeping arrangement, the State Department insisted America’s chief diplomat was not in violation of the blacklist sanctions, but not before controversy had been stirred.

Those currently on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) list are prevented from doing business with US firms, but in June senior State Department officials met privately with some of these tycoons, telling them to put forward a request to have their names cleared. They would be expected to show their commitment to transition, sever ties with the military, avoid involvement in land seizures and respect civilian rule. It is only a matter of time, it seems, before some cronies are removed from the blacklist, having been sufficiently rehabilitated in the eyes of US officials at the Treasury Department.

It is difficult to know whether the United States’ fast-moving policy on Burma might have been different, more critical perhaps, had the international landscape been more kind to the US president.

Once a pariah and still frequently taken to task by the international human rights community, Burma is Obama’s foreign policy success story over the course of a presidency of global chaos that some critics have chalked up to a failure of White House leadership.

In an address at West Point in May, he claimed, “We’re now supporting reform and badly needed national reconciliation through assistance and investment, through coaxing and, at times, public criticism. And progress there could be reversed, but if Burma succeeds, we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot.”

In an article in The New York Times published on Aug. 15, critics pointed out Obama’s foreign policy struggles in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine as cause for “a palpable sense of disappointment with Mr. Obama’s leadership on the world stage as well.”

With 58 percent of Americans disapproving of his foreign policy, according to a June poll, Obama needs a good news tale from abroad. Burma may be his best bet, but claiming credit for the move toward democracy, such as it is, won’t sit well with the skeptics who assert that reforms remain incomplete and the military and its former generals are still calling the shots in a country that is far from a success story.