Albeit on short public notice, Secretary of State Clinton’s quick trip to Burma/Myanmar was highly anticipated in policy circles. Commentators asked what would she accomplish, why should she go, and what did she achieve? Overall, many of us reached similar conclusions:
• Clinton’s trip was timely given the policy ‘turn’ toward the Asia-Pacific;
• It signified a positive boost for President Thein Sein’s actions toward reforms;
• There is need for greater and unique engagement;
• Three key issues remain unresolved – release of all political prisoners, violence among different ethnic groups, and uncertain relations between Myanmar and North Korea.
More than just to provide counter to China, the US seeks to make a lasting impact in Myanmar’s political situation. In one of her statements, Secretary Clinton said that “the United States wants to be a partner with Burma” and “we want to see this country take its rightful place in the world.” Furthermore, the US wants to assist Myanmar “to build the capacity of the government”.
Officially, the US policy is “principled engagement and direct dialogue as part of” a “dual-track approach”. The call for a “new conditional normalization” by CFR scholar Joshua Kurlantzick is premature. Kurlantzick writes:
Working with other industrialized democracies, the United States should be prepared to provide a large new aid package, upgrade relations, push for Myanmar’s reentry into global organizations, and potentially end sanctions—if, in return, Myanmar continues to move toward holding free elections, ending its insurgencies, and demonstrating real transparency about its weapons programs.
The goal of “conditional normalization” is to “prevent instability…stop Myanmar’s development of nuclear programs; and help promote democratization”. This policy turn would be a stark difference to past public declarations and policies, and however noble it is too early for implementation.
One would like to think that the situation in Myanmar is unique, and with just a bit of prodding the country can turn into a fledgling democracy with a vibrant export-driven economy. For all its intricacies and potential, however, it was not long ago that Buddhist monks were being imprisoned or killed for protesting, Aung San Suu Kyi was under perpetual house arrest, and other severe human rights abuses were going unrecognized by the international community (through lack of official UN resolutions or condemnations). The civil society sectors to which Clinton pledged funding have been few and far between or historically corrupt (due to channeling of money to the government first). A positive pathway for engagement to improve the level of human development is through the Lower Mekong Initiative, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the US; Clinton invited Myanmar to the program, and if nothing else it could enable better coordination for disaster relief and climate-related issues.