Being Cautious on Burma

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Being Cautious on Burma

Relations between the U.S. and Burma are developing rapidly. It’s vital, then, that progress is properly measured.

With the announcement that U.S. Secretary of State Clinton will be traveling to Burma in early December, the first visit by such a high-level U.S. official in five decades, U.S.-Burma relations are actually moving so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up with the change — something I never thought I would find myself writing about Burma. But in anticipation of the visit, it’s important to critically examine how to proceed from here. The government of new President Thein Sein already has presided over more opening than any Burmese government in at least two decades, but the administration should be watching these key markers to see that reform is continuing to progress:

1) Does Thein Sein continue to have the backing of the important power centers – the senior military, the parliament, and key ministries? For now, it appears he does. But despite the army commanders’ claims that they support the president, their loyalty remains uncertain. Many top commanders still owe their rise to former Senior General Than Shwe. However, some of the senior military see that, if they continue to support reforms, they might wind up being nominated for president or other top positions in the next election, due in 2015.

However, other senior officers reportedly fear that, if reforms continue, they will wind up being punished for the army’s past crimes. Thus, the United States and other foreign actors need to more closely assess the stability of Thein Sein’s power base. In the early 2000s, the United States and other foreign actors were caught largely by surprise when a potential reformer, Khin Nyunt, was sacked. In retrospect, Khin Nyunt had never really built the power base he needed to succeed.

2) On a day-to-day level, how well is reform being implemented? Burma is a sclerotic, poorly functioning state, so some level of a failure to implement new policies, such as economic privatization, relaxation of censorship, or greater professionalization of the military, is to be expected.  But too often in the past, laudable goals set by senior leaders – on combating pandemic disease, for example — were then completely undermined by a clear unwillingness to implement them on the ground. Does Thein Sein have the “buy-in” of the Burmese state? How much do officials and bureaucrats fear implementing his reforms, worrying that at some point the reforms will be reversed and those who implemented them will be punished?

3) Beyond Aung San Suu Kyi, what kind of freedom do average members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) have to operate in areas of the country other than Rangoon and Mandalay? The Obama administration, like previous U.S. administrations, has made much of their policy contingent on Suu Kyi; the president noted in speaking about Burma last week that Suu Kyi essentially supported greater engagement. To be sure, Suu Kyi, like Nelson Mandela before her, is a critical symbol. But judging the reality of whether the NLD and other opposition parties can operate today requires a much broader lens. Suu Kyi, in reality, is exempted from some of the government’s harshest treatment. The United States and other foreign actors need to push to get into the Burmese countryside, and into smaller cities and towns, and closely observe how freely and effectively opposition parties can set up party offices, canvas, and make speeches.

4) How does the Burmese government respond to initial outreach from the United States, Europe, Australia, the United Nation, and Japan? Besides the United States, other democracies may now unblock more aid, boost diplomatic relations, and generally engage more closely with the Burmese government. In previous eras, Burmese governments have shown that they were really interested only in using the outside world as leverage against China (and Thailand) because, after the initial détente with the West, relations cooled again.

5) How serious is the government about resolving its conflicts with ethnic militias? The Burmese government has pushed for new talks with the ethnic militias, as well as the formation of a peace committee that would meet and help to resolve the conflicts. But at the same time, it has taken a tough approach to groups like the Kachin Independence Organization. And while much of the country seems energized by Thein Sein’s reforms, the ethnic minorities in the north and northeast are actually more unstable than they were just a year or two ago. Without a resolution of these conflicts, no real systemic change is possible in Burma.

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