US Must Walk a Fine Line on Burma

By The Irrawaddy 13 September 2012

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.