U.S. Restores Burma Ties

The U.S. announces plans to restore diplomatic ties with Burma. But more steps are needed to lift sanctions.

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.