Wed 30 Nov 2011
Filed under: Opinion,Other
Bangkok – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s groundbreaking visit to Myanmar offers its military leaders something that’s eluded them during decades of iron-fisted rule a little respect from the West.The country’s nominally civilian but military-aligned government may also be seeking self-preservation and avoidance of an Arab Spring-style uprising with its surprising recent political and economic reforms.
Clinton’s visit beginning Wednesday signals international recognition of those reforms and could open a new era of friendlier relations.
Just six years ago, one of Clinton’s predecessors listed Myanmar among the “outposts of tyranny.” Washington shunned and sanctioned the country after its bloody crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, refusing even to call it by its preferred name, Myanmar sticking instead with the colonial-era Burma.
In part, Clinton’s historic journey is a culmination of behind-the-scenes overtures since a newly elected President Barack Obama told the world’s despotic regimes in 2009 that the “U.S. will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Since then, Myanmar has released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and its recently elected government has opened a dialogue with her, giving Washington just enough opening to re-engage.
The generals, eager to avoid the kinds of chaotic uprisings faced by authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and hopeful of new friendships as a counterweight to their reliance on China, have lowered their profile and loosened their control over the country.
They have opened up the economy after 25 years of disastrously quirky socialist rule, overhauled an antiquated infrastructure, implemented a new constitution and reached cease-fire agreements with more than a dozen fractious ethnic minority groups, although some groups continue to fight.
Analysts say the generals want some credit for these gestures. They want U.S. sanctions lifted so they can keep pace with a changing world, get the international respect they feel is their due and be allowed to send their children to American universities.
“They do feel that they are in such a solid position that they can begin to do things that they could not do before,” said David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The United States hopes the carrot of improved relations will encourage Myanmar’s new government to continue the reforms and ultimately restore true democratic rule.
Steinberg and Maung Zarni, a longtime exiled activist who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, agree that the Arab Spring may have put the generals on notice that managed change may be their best bet for survival. They must also be seeing the political churning going on in virtual one-party states such as Malaysia and Singapore as a bad omen.
“First and foremost what drives the reforms is the military’s desire to maintain its primacy in a way that is more acceptable to the regional and international community,” said Maung Zarni.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador and stopped all aid after the military, in power since 1962, brutally put down a 1988 pro-democracy uprising that left hundreds dead. The battle lines firmed when the generals locked up Suu Kyi in 1989 and nullified an election that her National League for Democracy party won handily in 1990.
However, with huge natural gas reserves, the junta wasn’t short of friends, and neighboring China never one to fuss about human rights moved in to provide aid and diplomatic cover.
But the generals have become increasingly uncomfortable with China, which has exploited Myanmar for its natural resources and strategic location near the Indian Ocean.
Myanmar’s military rulers implemented a self-styled roadmap to democracy, holding a general election last year that brought in the first parliament in more than two decades and installed an ostensibly civilian government this year, though one guaranteed to do their bidding.
“The question was not whether or not to move away from a pure military dictatorship and dysfunctional economic policies, but in what way and at what pace,” said Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U, who is based in Thailand.
Obama’s offer in his inaugural address to “extend a hand” to dictatorial regimes if “you … unclench your fist” struck a chord in Myanmar.
Within weeks, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar reported fresh approaches from government officials.
A Feb. 9, 2009, cable to Washington from the embassy one of the trove of documents released by WikiLeaks reported on a meeting with a Myanmar Foreign Ministry official, Yin Yin Oo, who suggested that initial topics for engagement could include anti-narcotics cooperation and recovery of U.S. remains from World War II.
U.S. diplomats described the approach as “yet another signal that the regime wants a visibly improved relationship,” but perhaps one more symbolic than substantive.
The “senior generals are embarrassed by their international pariah status and crave respect. … Whether, in the words of President Obama, they are willing to unclench their fists in order to deserve a measure of respect is yet to be seen,” said the cable by Charge d’Affaires Larry Dinger.
Still, the wheels had been set in motion, and by April the embassy had produced a comprehensive analysis with the hopeful title “Burma’s Generals: Starting the Conversation.” The 2,900-word cable remains a useful guide to the stakes the two sides bring to the table.
The analysis tries to explain why the generals had decided to unclench their fists:
“The most senior generals are looking for an escape strategy”;
“They hate being subject to sanctions and aspire to be treated with the respect accorded other world leaders, including some authoritarian ones”;
“The current senior generals are getting old … (they) undoubtedly want assurances that, if they voluntarily step aside, they and their families will retain their assets and will not be prosecuted.”
The cable identified a range of areas where Myanmar might seek cooperation, including narcotics, terrorism, trafficking and economic policy advice. Myanmar could ease restrictions on U.S. diplomats in return.
U.S. officials have stated repeatedly that substantive moves are contingent on Myanmar releasing political prisoners, estimated at somewhat under 2,000 after two rounds of amnesties this year.
Positive political steps could lead to “an easing of broad-based economic sanctions,” the analysis said.
“With sufficient progress, the sanctions specifically targeted at the regime and its cronies could be on offer, too,” the cable suggested.