In January, U.S. President Barack Obama will leave office and presumably begin work on his highly anticipated memoir. As Obama reflects over the past eight years, he will most certainly meditate on his engagement with Myanmar, and how it became such an important part of his foreign policy legacy.
To the casual observer, the Obama administration’s decision to make the once-isolated state a priority seemed peculiar, given Myanmar’s lengthy history as a pariah situated on the global periphery. In both military and economic terms, the United States had abandoned Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) long ago in favor of a strategic alliance with neighboring Thailand. Likewise, an autocratic Myanmar had only marginally hindered the United States from pursuing its most important and consistent foreign policy goal in the region, hedging against China.
For decades within the U.S. foreign policy establishment, sticks in the form of economic sanctions were preferred over the carrots of diplomatic engagement with Myanmar’s military rulers. If Obama’s Myanmar détente is to evolve into something akin to a bilateral partnership, much will depend on the next American president’s priorities. Most importantly, if democratic reforms in Myanmar show signs of stalling through the next year, the next occupant of the White House may be unwisely tempted to return to the coercive strategies of the past.
As the American election grows near, it is clear that Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have drastically different levels of experience in many policy areas, with the largest gulf evident in the foreign policy realm. As secretary of state, Clinton played a central role in negotiating an increase in foreign aid, the easing of economic sanctions, and the promotion of democratic reforms for Myanmar through her close relationship with National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, Trump has decidedly avoided making Southeast Asia a foreign policy priority during his campaign. His isolationist stance would complicate relations with major trading partners in the region, and could incite China to flex its economic and military muscles. One unintended and bizarre consequence of his controversial campaign, almost certainly unbeknownst to him, is the emboldening of anti-Muslim monks across Myanmar.
Though Clinton certainly possesses diplomatic experience, and an evident interest in Myanmar’s future, some are concerned that she has been too quick to label the country’s democratic opening a success. At times, she has personified the Western propensity to declare victory immediately after an authoritarian state holds its first free and fair elections. Unfortunately, this type of reaction fails to take seriously the real obstacles to democratization in Myanmar. Since her visit in 2011, many of Myanmar’s lingering problems remain unresolved. The stateless Rohingya population in the west continue to live in deplorable conditions, with few sympathizers present within the ruling NLD party. Aung San Suu Kyi’s unwillingness to address this issue confirms the worst fears of international human rights observers, that Muslims will remain outcasts despite regime change. Meanwhile, relations with ethnic minorities along the northern and eastern borders remain fraught, with an active war raging in Shan State and fresh fighting developing throughout Karen State.
The violence serves as a reminder that democratic elections have not significantly changed the traditional power constellation within the state. The military still possesses autonomy over its own affairs, and can effectively veto any proposed constitutional changes through its guaranteed representation in the legislature. Furthermore, the Burmese military’s reliance on regional commanders means that official policy changes are not uniformly applied throughout the country. The aforementioned difficulties will continue to haunt Myanmar, at least in the near future, as the military is not eager to extract itself from the political arena.
Unfortunately, these problems actually pale in comparison to the underlying weaknesses of the state apparatus itself. In terms of effective governance, Myanmar ranks lower than all of its neighbors. In short, the government is very limited in its ability to deliver essential goods and services to its citizens. In part, this is a legacy of decades of autocratic rule, as the generals deliberately weakened political, economic, and civil society in the interest of making the Burmese military the only game in town. This historical problem was only exacerbated by the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, a disaster from which the country has never really recovered. As state capacity is not built overnight, the next generation of political leaders will need the freedom and necessary resources to create a modern, functioning bureaucracy. In practice, this means building institutions that have the absorptive capacity required to attract foreign investors, while also designing major infrastructural projects that are not purely extractive. While these tasks are largely domestic in scope, the United States has much to offer in the form of technical assistance, targeted investment, and aid.
If Obama’s commitment to Myanmar was merely a matter of personal prerogative, then the prospects for a deeper relationship between the two states appears at best, murky. Should Clinton win the election, there is a much higher probability that Myanmar will hold an important place on the U.S. foreign policy map. This of course, does not mean that future U.S. engagement will prove effective. The next American president must walk a tightrope, as too many policy concessions may end up empowering a military that still retains tremendous control over the country’s formal and informal economy. Conversely, punishing Myanmar for not meeting certain democratic benchmarks may have the adverse effect of weakening the NLD’s power, while simultaneously scaring away foreign investment. In place of the aforementioned extremes, U.S. policy toward Myanmar must be carefully calibrated, requiring regular engagement and monitoring from the foreign policy establishment.
While Clinton has been too sanguine in her expectations for Myanmar, her comments are in no way comparable to Trump’s apparent ignorance of the country and broader region. As Myanmar tries to shake off its authoritarian past, its people would benefit most from an American president who understands their struggles. While current U.S. policy in no way portends future democratic consolidation, disengagement will almost certainly make Myanmar’s uphill climb even more treacherous.
Adam E. Howe is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Florida International University. His current research examines the strategic relationship between authoritarian regimes and religious organizations across Southeast Asia.