U.S. Restores Burma Ties
Image Credit: World Economic Forum

U.S. Restores Burma Ties


News today that the Barack Obama administration will restore full diplomatic relations with Burma, placing an ambassador in the country, should be seen as another sign of the rapid reentry of Burma into the international community.

A major U.S. business delegation is also visiting Burma, which some see as an economic opportunity on par with Vietnam after it opened in the early 1990s. Japanese business delegations have also been visiting and eying many sectors in the country. The restoration of diplomatic ties comes after another high-profile prisoner release (of an estimated 651 dissidents) by the Burmese government, as well as – more shockingly – a ceasefire with the Karen National Union, one of the longest-lasting ethnic insurgencies in the country, whose battle dates back six decades.

But from here, to get to removing U.S. sanctions on Burma (Australia already has dropped some sanctions), several steps are needed:

1) Pick the right ambassador. Burma isn’t France or Singapore; it remains a highly opaque government with many leaders extremely suspicious of the growing détente with the West. As happened after the United States restored diplomatic ties with Vietnam and Laos, the administration will need to find an ambassador with extensive experience and contacts in the country, and should possibly look outside the Foreign Service, whether to U.S. academics focusing on Burma, or to its own Special Envoy, Derek Mitchell, to serve as ambassador. After all, he has made connections with many of the senior leaders who now will be critical in the continued reform process.

2) Gain access to wider regions of the country. The prisoner releases, the cease-fires, the plans for the National League for Democracy to contest by-elections – all of these reforms are on the right path, and shocking to people following Burma just two or three years ago. But U.S. officials need to be able to get into the ethnic minority regions of the country, particularly in the north and the northeast, to see whether regional army commanders are actually adhering to cease-fires. Anecdotal reports from several ethnic minority areas suggests they aren’t, which raises the question of whether the government even has control over regional military commanders. Obtaining more access to ethnic minority areas would also allow the United States to develop a more informed position on how to address the United Wa State Army, the most powerful insurgent group and a major narcotrafficking army.

3) Spend far more time trying to find ways to collaborate with China. Chinese officials are clearly worried that the U.S. détente may come at their expense, particularly if Western companies will eventually be swarming into Burma. Yet the growing diplomatic relationship need not come at China’s expense; China will remain Burma’s biggest donor, investor, and diplomatic partner.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.

January 15, 2012 at 14:56

Burma should kick the Chinese out of your country. The Chinese are sucking your resources. Don’t trust them.

Edmund Sim
January 14, 2012 at 18:31

I would suggest retiring Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who has devoted much time and energy into improving the situation in and with Myanmar. Senator Webb sees the big picture in dealing with Myanmar, and has a great understanding of how military institutions work. The latter will be crucial in monitoring against any backsliding.

Jaisingh Thakur
January 14, 2012 at 17:13

In my view, if, at this critical juncture, the U.S.A., for whatever reasons, decides to keep Myanmar in a state of isolation, it would be a grievous diplomatic mistake. For one, it would leave the field wide open for the Chinese (they sure have no scruples about whom they engage with, do they ?), to meddle in that country, mostly to the detriment of the entire region !For another, the military junta of Myanmar, has been showing a remarkable and heartening tendency of a return to electoral democracy, a sign which the indefatigable campaigner for human rights, Ms. Aung Sang Suu Kyi also seems to have endorsed and welcomed !India, in particular, faced with the prospective military threat from China, needs to reach out to Myanmar and build bridges with that nation, regardless of the fact that China has already stolen a march over us in this crucial respect ! I am dismayed to see that our rulers do not use India’s soft power to promote our strategic and economic goals ! Is it due to a lack of consensus on Foreign policy issues among various political parties in India, or is due to the fact that our foreign policy mandarins have no vision of our strategic requirements, one does not know.As regards the U.S.A. engaging Myanmar,diplomatically and also rendering all possible help economically to enable the fledgling democratic movement in that country to survive and stand on its feet,it would also be welcomed by every single country in the region, with the possible exception of North Korea!

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