Moving U.S.-Burma Ties Forward

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Burma is history. But how do the U.S. and Burma move forward?

In my new CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum, I outline a strategy for U.S. policy called conditional normalization, in which Washington would significantly boost its relationship with Burma provided the reforms in that country continue apace. This proposal is significantly farther than the Obama administration is willing to go at this point. On her trip to Burma, Hillary Clinton offered the Burmese government a few small carrots: The United States will allow Burma to join the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is a forum including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States designed to discuss water issues and cooperation along the Mekong.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Clinton also “proposed that the United States and Myanmar (Burma) work jointly to recover the remains of 600 U.S. soldiers who died in the country during World War II.” In addition, the United States will now no longer block potential IMF and World Bank aid efforts in Burma.

Although these are small steps, the administration should build on the Clinton visit by taking the following measures in the near term:

1) First, the United States should begin the joint recovery initiative as quickly as possible. In other countries such as Laos that long had poor relations with the United States, joint recovery and demining programs were very useful in fostering people-to-people relationships, getting local government officials to see a more positive side of the United States, and breaking ground for larger efforts.

2) The administration should launch other near-term efforts to build people-to-people relationships with the country. These could include significantly expanding the number of Fulbright scholarships available to Burmese students to come to the United States, convening more of the popular sessions held at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon to discuss issues like social media and other current topics, and potentially expanding the American Center which is a multimedia center at the embassy.

3) The administration should begin to more comprehensively draw upon the experience of aid organizations and media outlets that have worked for two decades on the Thai-Burma border, as it prepares for a potential future U.S. aid package to Burma (I propose the details of such a package in my Memorandum.). These groups have the most experience in dealing with the intricacies of delivering aid to Burma’s populations that can be divided by ethnicity, by decades of war, and by subgroups and subclans. Some of these aid workers may wind up working inside Burma in the future, but in the least, the U.S (and other potential donors) should make a comprehensive file of these groups’ experiences.

4) The administration should immediately begin posting a diplomat regularly to Naypyidaw, Burma’s political capital. In the past, keeping the embassy in Yangon (also known as Rangoon) was – like calling the country Burma – a way of protesting the generals’ rule and of supporting the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi. And, the regime was hostile to most meetings with many U.S. diplomats anyway. Now, despite the potential of an American ambassador coming back to the country, the United States is still unlikely to move the embassy; this process would be both a time-consuming and difficult task, and would remove diplomats from Yangon, Burma’s biggest city. However, I argue that having a U.S. diplomat permanently in Naypyidaw, where parliament meets and government makes decisions, is a necessity now.

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