MYANMAR RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES IN THE 1990s AND 2000s
In the 1990s, the United States suspended all economic and military aid to Myanmar, imposed an arms embargo against the country, ended low tariffs on Burmese products and prevented the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and ant-narcotic and development assistance programs from making loans to the country because of human rights violations, narcotic sales and a refusal to open a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador and stopped all aid after the Myanmar military put down a 1988 pro-democracy uprising that left hundreds dead. In 1991—after the generals locked up Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989 and nullified an election that her National League for Democracy party won handily in 1990—imposed sanction, which it increased in severity and scope over the years. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq there were some in Myanmar who wondered: "When is the U.S. going to bomb our military?"
Washington occasionally would slack off but as rule it maintained a hardline in it approach to Myanmar, accusing the Myanmar generals of heading one of the most repressive and corrupt governments in the world and being in cahoots with drug traffickers that at one time supplied about 70 percent of the heroin reaching the U.S. In 2006, the United States criticized Myanmar for doing too little to fight the drug trade.
According to the New York Times the U.S. wanted Myanmar’s generals to "respect internationally recognized human rights, admit U.N. and Red Cross observers, end forced labor, fight drug trafficking, devise credible democratic procedures for a return to constitutional rule and free...political prisoners." The main thing that the Americans demanded was that the junta respect the results of the election in 1990. The eased off on the Myanmar regime when Aung San Suu Kyi was released and took a hard line again when she was imprisoned or placed under house arrest.
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “After Burma’s crackdown in 1988, the United States had reduced its presence there to a low-key embassy, with no ambassador, and in Washington, apart from a small community of activists and lawmakers, the country was ignored. Americans had been barred from investing since 1997, and, among additional measures, in 2007 and 2008 Washington moved against individuals—leaders and well-connected tycoons—by freezing assets and issuing travel bans. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]
American diplomats argued that "constructive engagement" (the notion that economic developments encourages political reforms) didn’t apply in Myanmar. One American analyst told Newsweek, "In Burma, you have to look at the way the military has orchestrated foreign contacts. All foreign investment gets channeled through the generals and senior officers." For a long time allies of the U.S. in Asia and Europe rejected "Washington's diplomatic policy of isolating the Myanmar military dictatorship of Burma in 1994. They argued that this policy undercut moderates in the regime.
Before 2009, the only time Myanmar leader Than Shwe—who ruled Myanmar from 1992 to 2010—met with a U.S. official was when William Berger, head of a disaster assistance team delivered a planeload of aid after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
United States, China, the U.S. Military and Myanmar
One of the goals of American foreign policy towards Myanmar, some analysts have said, was to bring Myanmar on board to create a united Southeast Asian front against China in pursuit of plans to encircle and contain the emerging superpower—in other words using smaller Southeast Asian nations to “tie down” the larger China. But recent years, while Myanmar regime and China have developed a "dense web" of economic and other ties, the U.S. has handed the Myanmar government only a few million dollars for healthcare initiatives and assistance to landmine victims.
When asked if she thought Myanmar’s military regime undertook reforms because it believed that China was gaining too much influence and the generals wanted the United States and the international community as a counterbalance, Aung San Suu Kyi told the Washington Post:
It’s not necessarily connected with our relations with China. A lot of officers in the Burmese army have always wanted to have good relations with the U.S. Previously we have had good relations with the U.S., and some of the generals were trained in the U.S. The minister of labor had a stint at Fort Benning. [Source: Lally Weymouth, Washington Post, January 20, 2012]
Reuters reported: “Even when it was a dictatorship, Myanmar sent more officers to the United States than to any other country. More than 1,200 officers trained there between Myanmar's independence from Britain in 1948 and General Ne Win's military coup in 1962, according to Maung Aung Myoe, author of "Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces since 1948." Ne Win's coup ushered in nearly half a century of isolation and misrule, but the United States maintained military ties as a bulwark against the spread of communism from neighboring China. Some 255 Myanmar officers graduated from the United States from 1980 to 1988 under the International Military Education and Training program, more than from any other country, said Maung Aung Myoe. The program was halted, and U.S. sanctions were imposed, after the junta crushed the 1988 uprising and refused to honor the results of a general election won by Suu Kyi's party two years later.[Source: Reuters, October 19, 2012]
Speaking on Burmese relations with the U.S. and China in January 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi said, "I don't think it needs to be an exclusive relationship. It doesn't mean we have to be friends either with the US or China. We need to be friends of both.”
U.S. Sanctions on Myanmar and Problems with Sanctions
The U.S. imposed trade sanctions on Myanmar in 1988, strengthened them in 1996 and banned all imports from Myanmar in 2003 along with a prohibition on new investment and denial of visas to top junta officials as the U.S. moved from broad-based to more targeted sanctions. The sanctions were stiffened after dozens were killed in the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 and included tighter controls on Myanmar exports and the freezing of assets of additional junta members. Each year the sanctions issue came up for a vote before Congress and were passed almost unanimously in both houses by both Republicans and Democrats.
The U.S. banned imports from Myanmar, restricted money transfers, froze assets and targeted jewelry with gemstones originating in the country. The European Union banned weapons sales and mineral imports.
Many argued the U.S. sanctions on Myanmar accomplished little. The move had little impact because Asian companies in countries that didn’t impose sanction did far more business in Myanmar than the United States and U.S. companies that were already in Myanmar doing business at the time the sanctions were imposed were not affected. Japan and countries in Southeast Asia refused to go along with a U.S. effort to coordinate international sanctions against Myanmar.
Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post, “While the NLD has endorsed the U.S. embargo, some of its senior members acknowledged that it has not been very effective. "Exports are continuing to increase," said a senior NLD member, who asked not to be named. "India and China will buy anything we sell. They demand a lot of our raw materials and agricultural materials." [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, January 7, 2006 |/]
“The country's leaders in particular have succeeded in insulating themselves from the sanctions, which diplomats and economic experts in Rangoon said mainly harm smaller businessmen. The military rulers, their families and some business associates still make money, including from taxes and payments on legal trade, the teak cartel and several government-awarded monopolies enriching tycoons close to the generals. The import of automobiles, for instance, is so tightly restricted by these well-connected businessmen that Burmese say a 15-year-old Japanese sedan might sell for more than 20 times its value elsewhere and the supply of mobile phones is so limited that they can cost more than $2,000.” |/
U.S. Policy Towards Myanmar Under the Bush Administration
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush condemned Myanmar on the forced labor and relocation of civilians and failing to do enough to tackle opium and amphetamines productions. Bush himself repeatedly urged the Myanmar generals to free Aung San Suu Kyi and called for the international community to step up pressure on Myanmar. Even Bush’s wife Laura took up Myanmar as one of her pet causes. The Bush administration urged China and India to pressure Myanmar over human rights. In May 2002, Myanmar’s military junta hired a lobbying firm, DCI, with connections to the Bush administration for $500,000 to push for normalization of relationship with the United States.
In July 2003, U.S. President Bush signed a new Myanmar sanction bill. It banned the import of products from Myanmar and froze the assets of senior officials. the measure passed in the Senate by a vote of 94-1 and in the House, 418-2. These sanctions resulted in a cut of an estimated 40,000 jobs in the U.S.
In May 2004, the Bush administration ordered that sanctions remain in place and said Myanmar’s “actions and policies are hostile to U.S. interests and pose a continuing threat unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” The sanctions were renewed in July 2004. In 2005 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned Myanmar as one of the world's six "outposts of tyranny."
Bush visited Thailand for 21 hours in 2008. The primary focus of the trip was human rights abuses in Myanmar. He gave a speech condemning Myanmar’s military junta while his wife Laura visited a refugee camp in Thailand, with 38,000 Karens that had fled Myanmar. Bush said: “Together, we seek a end to tyranny in Burma. The noble cause has many devoted champions, and I happen to be married to one of them.”
In May 2008, Bush ordered a freeze of the assets of state-owned companies in Myanmar that he said were propping up the ruling junta. “These companies, in industries such as gems and timber, exploit the labor of the downtrodden Burmese people, but enrich only the generals,” Bush said.
The new order allows the Bush administration to go after state-owned enterprises, which it previously lacked the authority to do. The US government already has taken the power to go after individuals and companies in Myanmar, which has been under military rule since 1962. [Source: Agencies. May 3. 2008]
U.S. Policy Towards Myanmar Under the Obama Administration
Shortly after Barack Obama formally became U.S. President in January 2009, the Obama administration began conducting a high-profile review of its policy toward Burma, including whether unilateral sanctions have been effective. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta," adding that the route taken by Burma's neighbors of "reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either." [Source: Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, March 26, 2009]
Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “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 February 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. [Source: Grant Peck, Associated Press, November 30, 2011]
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: 1) "The most senior generals are looking for an escape strategy." 2) "They hate being subject to sanctions and aspire to be treated with the respect accorded other world leaders, including some authoritarian ones". 3) "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.
United States Begins Softening Towards Myanmar
In August 2009, junta leader Than Shwe held historic talks with U.S. Senator Jim Webb, the first senior U.S. official to meet the leader of Myanmar. Webb won the release of U.S. citizen John Yettaw, who was jailed after swimming to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, and met with with Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been a vocal critic of the Myanmar junta. The meeting with Than Shwe took place days after a court found Suu Kyi and Yettaw of breeching security laws. Several trips to Myanmar were also made by U.S. special envoy Derek Mitchell
In September 2009, the Obama administration said it would “open to dialogue with Myanmar” but maintain its sanctions. U.S. State Department assistant secretary Kurt Campbell said, “For the first time in memory,the Burmese leadership has shown an interest in engaging with the United States and we intend to pursue that interest.”
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, ““By the summer of 2009 diplomats from Malaysia, Indonesia, and others in the region were funnelling signals that Burma wanted to talk. President Obama came into office vowing to seek engagement with hostile regimes, and several people in Burma quoted to me a phrase from his Inauguration speech: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” The Administration saw the prospect of growing dissatisfaction within the military as powerful leverage. An Embassy source close to the military “recommended the U.S. exploit the emerging differences within the top levels of the regime by tightening our sanctions against the senior generals.” Leslie Hayden, the Embassy’s political officer at the time, cabled Washington that “the generals despise the sanctions and want them removed because they challenge the regime’s legitimacy. If we really want to see the generals make progress, we need to show them what they will get in return.” What could the United States offer? Dinger, another diplomat, signed a cable that laid out options, including “dangle World Bank and I.M.F. technical assistance” or “consider accepting the country name ‘Myanmar.’ ” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]
“In November 2011, encouraged by Suu Kyi’s meeting with Thein Sein, President Obama phoned her to discuss the next steps. “If she’s supportive of this, then we’re going to go,” he told aides, and the following day he announced that Hillary Clinton would visit Burma—the first Secretary of State to do so since John Foster Dulles, in 1955. The visit was highly choreographed even by diplomatic standards: to underscore American support for the opposition, Clinton and Suu Kyi were photographed in matching white jackets. Over dinner, according to an Administration official, Suu Kyi told Clinton, “I don’t want to be an icon, I want to be a politician,” and Clinton replied, “Get ready to get attacked.” As a gift to Suu Kyi, Clinton brought books on Eisenhower and George Marshall, to help her understand the mind-set of soldiers who go into politics. -
“In the West, Burma’s efforts toward openness and democratization had touched off that rare thing in diplomacy: a race to declare not who had lost a country but who had won it. In the Administration, there was a sense that Burma is a risky source of pride: a successful test of President Obama’s commitment to engagement, and a vast new market for American business, but also a high-profile bet on men of immense moral flexibility.” -
Meetings Between Top Myanmar Officials and Obama Administration Reps
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “The Administration decided to keep sanctions in place but also to open negotiations. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacifi c Affairs, met U Thaung, then Burma’s minister for science and technology, at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan, but left largely baffled by the Burmese negotiator’s long digressions about the toll of imperialism and war. “We had to figure out, How were these people communicating?” Campbell told me. “What we would tend to think of as basically killing the clock, they would interpret as an essential expression of their historical legacy and trajectory.” At one point, Campbell flew to Burma to press for elections, the release of prisoners, and talks with ethnic groups. He met with Suu Kyi, but he made “absolutely no progress whatsoever” with the government, he said. A second trip was even less productive, and the Administration returned to a hostile posture, declaring support for establishing a U.N. commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes in Burma. - [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]
In September 2011, Myanmar foreign minister Maung Lwin came to Washington to meet with senior U.S. State Department officials, a sign of further easing of tensions between the United States and Myanmar. In January 2012, the United States began restoring full diplomatic ties with Myanmar. Following the release of hundreds of political prisoners and on the eve of by-elections, the Obama administration agreed to exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in two decades.
Kurt M. Campbell wrote in Foreign Policy, “By 2009, there were few overt signs of any real change, but President Obama launched a tentative, exploratory effort to woo Burma out of its isolation. On my first visit, in early 2010, I met both Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, then the prime minister as well as No. 4 in the ruling junta. The contrast between the two could not have been greater. I was permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon at an old Russian-built hotel, a relic of Burma's Cold War ambivalence. She was delivered to the hotel from her solitary house arrest, and we talked for three hours about her hopes for a new Burma. She was predictably inspiring, reflecting a steely determination and optimism that contrasted sharply with the stark setting, and displayed a thorough grasp of international developments that belied her nearly two decades in isolation under house arrest. She described in detail her daily ritual of listening to the BBC World Service and Voice of America as a kind of preparation for the role she could then barely imagine — but today is playing. The regime cropped her out of a photo of my visit published in the state-run newspaper. [Source: Kurt M. Campbell, Foreign Policy, December 2012 ||||]
“I met Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the remote new capital where the generals had abruptly sequestered themselves a few years earlier. Largely unresponsive to our offer for a meaningful dialogue, he and his fellow generals showed no sign of willingness to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi or implement any serious reforms. Thein Sein seemed an unlikely strongman, reserved and mild-mannered in his heavily starched olive-green uniform. But in that first meeting, with his careful military cadence and cautious manner, he gave no indication of any of the ideas of reform that have come to animate his time as president. Thein Sein's government has since released hundreds of political prisoners; eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, and movement; established cease-fires with most insurgent ethnic groups; and launched a wobbly electoral process that eventually allowed Aung San Suu Kyi's once-banned opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to take legislative seats, 22 years after the junta ignored the party's stunning national election victory. ||||
Hillary Clinton Visits Myanmar in December 2011
In December 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar. It was the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles came in 1995. Andrew Quinn of Reuters wrote: “It wasn't exactly Nixon in China, but Hillary Clinton's visit to Myanmar had that slight touch of the surreal that sometimes marks the beginning of unexpected diplomatic change. First, it had to be color coordinated. Officials traveling with Clinton are always given instructions by the State Department on accompanying the secretary of state, but this time they came with an added set of suggestions on what not to wear...Blacks, whites and pinks were out. Rust and saffron were discouraged....The mysterious list of ins-and-outs for Myanmar fashion was never fully explained, although an official later said it appeared to be an effort to avoid the traditional colors of mourning, or those associated with Buddhist monks, who have protested against the government. [Source: Andrew Quinn, Reuters, December 2, 2011 ^^]
“Clinton, bounding off the plane in Myanmar's tiny capital airport, went for a pink blazer anyway. And the Myanmar officials meeting her showed up in white, a sign of how sketchy the U.S. intelligence is about a nation long known as one of the most reclusive and repressive in Southeast Asia. Lack of hard information was a recurring theme during Clinton's three-day trip” which including stops at the new but deserted capital of Naypyitaw and lakeside villa in Yangon where San Suu Kyi spent much of the past two decades. Blackberries, that essential Washington tool, were useless. Officials were opaque and translation a challenge. And the United States had few benchmarks for judging the sincerity of a political reform campaign that even Clinton admitted was gaining steam with surprising speed. ^^
“The trip to Naypyitaw was a breeze along a 20-lane highway without another vehicle in sight. The motorcade approached the presidential palace, a hugely overgrown golf clubhouse conjured out of marble and enormous chandeliers, by bridge over a moat. Security was tight, as were the smiles, although Sein's wife did show up for lunch and waved jauntily to journalists as the convoy departed. Clinton got a different picture of Myanmar at her next step in Yangon. Here there were cars and people, although few appeared to know that it was the U.S. secretary of state whizzing by. Clinton - with security and journalists in tow - went barefoot at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and rang a bell with a giant wooden mallet as onlookers cheered. It was the type of public diplomacy that is Clinton's forte as a former politician, although many of those snapping her photo were tourists and she had little direct contact with local Burmese. ^^
“She did connect with the one person she had long aimed to meet: Aung San Suu Kyi. Over the course of two days, the pair met and appeared to form a fast friendship, one that could be important as Washington seeks to deepen its understanding of Myanmar and the future of democratic reform. As U.S. officials described it, their conversation ranged from the sublime (Suu Kyi asking Clinton for advice on relaunching her career in electoral politics) to the ridiculous (Clinton presenting Suu Kyi's dog with a dog bowl and a chew toy). At their first face-to-face meeting, Clinton appeared wearing a white, Asian style blouse with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. When Suu Kyi arrived, she was also in a white blouse and sporting a matching hairstyle. ^^
Grant Peck of Associated Press wrote: “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 signals international recognition of those reforms and could open a new era of friendlier relations. [Source: Grant Peck, Associated Press, November 30, 2011 \]
“Just six years before one of Clinton's predecessors listed Myanmar among the "outposts of tyranny." 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. \\
United States Relaxes Sanctions in 2012
The United States suspended sanctions in May 2012. According to the CIA World Factbook: In July 2012, as a result of reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein and his nominally civilian government, the U.S. broadly eased restrictions on new investment in and the export of financial services to Burma. In November 2012, the U.S. eased the import bank on Burmese products to the US with the exception of jadeite and rubies. Although the Burmese government has good economic relations with its neighbors, significant improvements in economic governance, the business climate, and the political situation are needed to promote serious foreign investment.
In April 2012, the United States eased sanctions for NGO projects. In July 2012, a U.S. ban on imports from Myanmar was allowed to expire without being renewed. In n September 2012, the U.S. eased trade restrictions on Myanmar goods and waived the visa ban for Myanmar officials and removed sanctions that blocked the assests of Myanmar President Thein Sein. In November 2012, before Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar, the import ban was eased.
In May 2012, the BBC reported: “The United States has eased some sanctions on investment and relations with Burma in response to political reform there. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said broader laws on sanctions against Burma would remain in place to safeguard against "backsliding". Restrictions on investments have been relaxed and the first US ambassador in 22 years has been announced. The move follows limited democratic reform in Burma. Striking a note of caution, President Barack Obama told the US Congress the administration continues "to have concerns, including remaining political prisoners, ongoing conflict and serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas". [Source: BBC, May 17, 2012]
In July 2012, Reuters reported: “President Barack Obama eased sanctions against Myanmar to allow U.S. companies to invest there, calling it a "strong signal" of support for political reform taking root in the southeast Asian country. But Obama said Washington remained concerned about the lack of investment transparency as well as the military's role in Myanmar's economy and made clear that U.S. firms would be required to make detailed disclosures on their dealings there. "Today the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a statement, praising the country for "significant progress along the path to democracy." [Source: Reuters, July 12, 2012]
Did Sanctions Against Myanmar Work?
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, In July 2012, “the Obama Administration suspended sanctions across all sectors. Activists assailed the decision for going too far. Even though the Administration has expanded asset freezes and travel bans on individuals, and will require companies to report on their Burma investments, suspending sanctions, critics contend, “looks like it caved to industry pressure and undercut Aung San Suu Kyi,” Arvind Ganesan, the director of the human-rights division of Human Rights Watch, told me. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 -]
“Burma has added a new dimension to the debate about the handling of rogues: Did the sanctions work? Does Burma tell us anything about how we should approach Syria or Iran? Inside the country, the consensus has not changed. “It didn’t hurt the ruling junta one iota,” Serge Pun, a prominent Burmese businessman, told me. “It actually hurt all the normal people, the poor people. Thousands of factories had to close down, because their products could not be sold to the West. Honestly, when you have China and India on both sides, who did not participate in the sanctions, and you had nine other ASEAN countries who also didn’t participate, the sanctions, in effect, couldn’t work.” -
“Curiously, that was also the consensus in Washington for many years. Tom Malinowksi, a Burma expert and an advocate of sanctions who worked in the Clinton White House when the first round of sanctions were imposed, said, “They imposed sanctions not because they genuinely believed that they would work but because they wanted to do “something”.” As the generals endured and enriched themselves, the measures were declared a failure. “They were only strong enough to weaken the country, not strong enough to remove the leaders,” Nay Zin Latt, the Burmese Presidential adviser, told me. -
“But that verdict may have been premature. For all the suffering they produced, sanctions and scorn did narrow the junta’s options. Sanctions drove the leaders deeper into China’s embrace than they could tolerate and piqued their fears of falling behind their neighbors. The generals were denied access to the World Bank and other facilities that they believed had been indispensable to the rise of China and Vietnam. “They realized they had no choice but to bring Aung San Suu Kyi on board,” Maung Zarni said. “That is not a values shift, where they say we need to treat our people like human beings. It’s a technical, strategic move.” -
U.S. Improves Military Ties with Myanmar
In October 2012, Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, the commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, became the first American military officer in a quarter-century to visit Burma. According to the Washington Post he said the Pentagon would like to gradually build a relationship with the Burmese military, but only if it meets strict human rights criteria established by Congress, the White House and the State Department. “They set the tone for what we can do and when we can do it,” Wiercinski said. “I follow the law.” [Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post November 15, 2012]
Around the same time, Reuters reported: “Myanmar will be invited to a major U.S. and Thai-led multinational military exercise, a powerful symbolic gesture toward a military with a grim human rights record and a milestone in its rapprochement with the West.Officials from participating countries told Reuters Myanmar would be asked to send observers to the annual Kobra Gold exercise, which involves thousands of American and Thai military personnel and participants from other Asian countries. "This appears to be the first step on the part of the U.S. to re-engage Myanmar militarily and to wean it away from its reliance on China," said Jan Zalewski, an analyst covering Myanmar for IHS Global Insight, a research firm.[Source: Reuters, October 19, 2012 ]
“Washington's rapprochement with Myanmar's military has been carefully calibrated under the umbrella of humanitarian dialogue, the sources said. It is also seen as a first step toward U.S.-Myanmar military-to-military ties, cut off after 1988. "In the past, Myanmar has always been unhappy about this Cobra Gold, thinking that it was directed against them and was like a step towards invasion," said Dr Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and expert on Myanmar's military.
See World War II MIA Remains
Obama Visits Myanmar in November 2012
In November 2012, Prime Minister Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar. During his six-hour visit to Yangon he met with Myanmar President Thein Sein and paid a personal visit to Aung San Suu Kyi and delivered a speech at Yangon University. Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason of Reuters wrote: “Obama, greeted by enthusiastic crowds in the former capital, Yangon, met President Thein Sein. "I shared with President Thein Sein our belief that the process of reform that he is taking is one that will move this country forward," Obama told reporters, with Thein Sein at his side. "I recognize that this is just the first steps on what will be a long journey, but we think that a process of democratic reform and economic reform here in Myanmar ... can lead to incredible development opportunities here," Obama said, using the country name preferred by the government and former junta, rather than Burma, which is used in the United States. [Source: Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason, Reuters, November 19, 2012 ==]
“Thein Sein, speaking in Burmese with an interpreter translating his remarks, responded that the two sides would move forward, "based on mutual trust, respect and understanding". "We also reached agreement for the development of democracy in Myanmar and for promotion of human rights to be aligned with international standards," he added. Obama's Southeast Asian trip, less than two weeks after his re-election, the trip to Myanmar highlighted what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement — its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year. Tens of thousands of well-wishers, including children waving American and Burmese flags, lined Obama's route from the airport after his arrival, cheering him as he went by. ==
“Obama met fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi at the lakeside home where she spent years under house arrest. Addressing reporters afterwards, Suu Kyi thanked Obama for supporting the political reform process. But, speaking so softly she was barely audible at times, she cautioned that the most difficult time was "when we think that success is in sight". "Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people," she said. Obama said she was "an icon of democracy who has inspired people not just in this country but around the world". "Today marks the next step in a new chapter between the United States and Burma," he said, using the country name that she prefers. Before he left, the two embraced and he kissed her on the cheek. Earlier, Obama made an unscheduled stop at the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, where he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their entire entourage, secret service agents included, went barefoot up the giant stone staircase. ==
“At Yangon University Obama addressed the attacks on Rohingya, which left 190 people dead and displaced more than 120,000. "For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine, have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there's no excuse for violence against innocent people...The Rohingya ... hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do. National reconciliation will take time, but for the sake of our common humanity, and for the sake of this country's future, it's necessary to stop incitement and to stop violence." Thein Sein, in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, promised to tackle the root causes of the problem, and Obama said he welcomed "the government's commitment to address the issues of injustice, and accountability, and humanitarian access and citizenship". ==
“Some human rights groups objected to the Myanmar visit, saying Obama was rewarding the government of the former pariah state for a job that was incomplete. Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his visit, Obama denied he was going to offer his "endorsement" or that his trip was premature. Aides said Obama was determined to lock in the democratic changes under way in Myanmar, but would press for further action, including the freeing of all political prisoners. Obama announced the resumption of U.S. aid program in Myanmar during his visit. An administration official said the USAID program would include assistance of $170 million in total for fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this would be dependent on further reforms. In a move clearly timed to show goodwill, the authorities began to release dozens more political detainees, including Myint Aye, arguably the most prominent dissident left in its gulag. In his Yangon speech, he appealed to North Korea to take a similar path. "To the leadership of North Korea, I've offered a choice: let go of your nuclear weapons, and choose the path of peace and progress. If you do, you'll find an extended hand from the United States of America," he said. ==
Myanmar or Burma? Obama Calls it Both on Visit
Aye Aye Win and Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “ Officially at least, America still calls this Southeast Asian nation Burma, the favored appellation of dissidents and pro-democracy activists who opposed the former military junta's move to summarily change its name 23 years ago. President Barack Obama used that name during his historic visit, but he also called Burma what its government and many other people have been calling it for years: Myanmar. [Source: Aye Aye Win and Todd Pitman, Associated Press November 19, 2012 /*]
“Obama's use of that single word was warmly welcomed by top government officials here, who immediately imbued it with significance. "It doesn't change the fact that the United States government position is still Burma," he said. "But we've said we recognize that different people call this country by different names. Our view is that is something we can continue to discuss." The issue is so sensitive that Obama's aides had said earlier he would likely avoid mentioning either politically charged name. But he used both during his six-hour trip — "Myanmar" during morning talks with Thein Sein, "Burma" afterward while visiting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. /*\
“Suu Kyi herself was criticized by the government for calling the nation Burma during a trip to Europe over the summer. The government said she should use the proper name, "Republic of the Union of Myanmar," as stated in the constitution. But Suu Kyi has said "it's for each individual to make his or her own choice as to which he or she uses." /*\
Post-Sanction U.S. Economic Policy Towards Myanmar
According to the U.S. State Department: “President Thein Sein’s government has pledged to do business differently, and the United States has committed to supporting these efforts through our calibrated easing of economic sanctions to support political and economic reforms. In 2012, we broadly authorized new investment in Burma for the first time in 15 years, including in Burma’s multi-billion dollar oil and gas sectors. However, to ensure that military-owned enterprises would not benefit from this opening, investment in military-owned companies remains off limits. Similarly, U.S. companies are not authorized to make payments to the military to provide security for their investments, as the military is the primary driver of the worst human rights abuses. We also instituted the Reporting Requirements for Responsible Investment, which require U.S. persons making investments over $500,000 to report on their human rights, environmental, labor, and anti-corruption due diligence procedures. Companies without such due diligence procedures in place may nevertheless invest in Burma, provided they report that they do not have these policies in place. Our expectation is that companies that report a lack of adequate human rights policies will face pressure from civil society actors here and in Burma to develop them, and our hope is that companies will develop policies in collaboration with these groups. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013]
Some have argued that these reporting requirements are too onerous and discourage investment, while others argue that they are too permissive and do not providing adequate human rights safeguards. But we’ve also heard from large American companies and members of Burmese and U.S. civil society who strongly support them. Our intention is to strike a balance, guarding against an economic free-for-all that would funnel investment to the military and its companies while still incentivizing responsible investment that contributes to Burma’s economic modernization, job creation, and widely-shared prosperity.
Matthew Pennington of Associated Press wrote: A key U.S. demand has been that Myanmar sever military ties with North Korea, because of fears that arms sales to Myanmar, in violation of U.N. sanctions, help Pyongyang finance its nuclear weapons program.U.S. officials say there's been progress, but are still calling for that military relationship to be terminated, which suggests transactions continue. Shwe Mann asserted that the arms trade has stopped. "If there's any information that we hear on this matter we will continue to take actions as required. Because our country, like others, will abide by the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council," he said. "We are not neglecting this matter." [Source: Matthew Pennington, Associated Press, June 13, 2013]
Obama Seeks Limited Military Ties with Myanmar
In December 2013, Matthew Pennington of Associated Press wrote: “The Obama administration faced strong bipartisan opposition to plans for limited U.S. engagement with Myanmar's powerful military due to concerns over human rights and its lingering ties with North Korea. Senior administration officials called for congressional support for non-lethal assistance to the military, such as training on human rights. But both Republicans and Democrats were skeptical about the military's willingness to reform, saying abuses against ethnic and religious minorities persist in the country also known as Burma and the military remains involved in weapons deals with North Korea against U.N. sanctions. [Source: Matthew Pennington, Associated Press, December 4, 2013]
"I personally don't believe that the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing and raping and stealing lands from people within their own country," Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley of New York told a hearing of a House panel that oversees U.S. foreign policy toward East Asia. Republican panel chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, also said the administration was being too hasty to engage with the military, and that the U.S. risks losing its remaining leverage to encourage further reforms.
The introduction of democracy after five decades of repressive military rule has ended Myanmar's diplomatic isolation and seen a rapid easing of sanctions by the U.S. and other Western nations. Some 1,100 political prisoners have been freed and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest, has been elected to parliament. But in the past 18 months, a bloody upsurge in sectarian violence that security forces have failed to stop against minority Muslims has displaced more than 200,000 people and cast a shadow over the country's move towards democracy. While there is now a nominally civilian government, the military remains a critical force with an effective veto on constitutional reforms. Its troops continue to clash with ethnic armed groups despite nascent peace talks.
Senior U.S. defense official Vikram Singh said there have been initial contacts between the U.S. and Myanmar militaries, including discussions on military law, but current sanctions prevent a formal training program. He said engagement was an opportunity to shape the military's outlook and dilute its reliance on old partners and arms suppliers, like China. "Burma is finding itself having, for the first time in many years, to actually figure out where it wants to place its bets, where it wants to put its cards, who it wants to deal with," Singh said. "We want to shape the kind of choices that Burma makes."
Judith Cefkin, the State Department's senior adviser on Myanmar, said that some officers have a vested interest in the military's continued involvement in the nation's economy and politics, but that "carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers." Chabot, however, said Myanmar's military leaders have not demonstrated a sincere interest in reforms and the government of President Thein Sein has not fulfilled promises to allowing international humanitarian access to conflict areas and end illicit weapons deals with North Korea. Republican Rep. Trent Franks called the Myanmar military "one of the worst oppressors of human rights in recent history" and said it should meet clear benchmarks before any sanctions are lifted.
Singh, who acknowledged Myanmar had yet to sever its military ties with North Korea, said a normalization of U.S.-Myanmar military relations would require fundamental reforms and was likely years away. Cefkin said assistance being proposed now for the Myanmar military would provide "nothing to enhance their tactical warfighting capability." Crowley wasn't reassured. He said to begin even a non-lethal U.S. training program would offer the military a public relations victory. "I'm concerned our military-to-military (engagement) is moving too quickly because they feed off this prestige. I want us, visually and in reality, to slow this down," he said.
Thein Sein Visits the White House in May 2013
Myanmar President and former general Thein Sein became the first Myanmar leader to be welcomed to the White House in almost 47 years. But, Matthew Pennington of Associated Press wrote “activists are angry about President Barack Obama hosting Thein Sein, and lawmakers are wary. The Myanmar leader has led the shift from decades of direct military rule, but has stalled on some reform commitments and failed to stop bloody outbursts of ethnic violence. His name was only deleted from a blacklist barring travel to the U.S. in September 2012. [Source: Matthew Pennington, Associated Press, May 20, 2013]
“Thein Sein arrived in Washington, six months after Obama made his historic trip to Myanmar. The administration's outreach to Myanmar's generals has provided an important incentive for the military to loosen controls on citizens and reduce dependence on China. Myanmar has been rewarded by relaxation of tough economic sanctions, and Thein Sein will be addressing American businessmen keen to capitalize on the opening of one of Asia's few untapped markets.
"President Thein Sein's visit underscores President Obama's commitment to supporting and assisting those governments that make the important decision to embrace reform," the White House said in its announcement of Monday's visit. The last Burma-Myanmar leader to visit the White House was Ne Win, an independence hero-turned dictator, who came in September 1966.
The most significant outcome of Thein Sein's trip could be a symbolic one. Obama used "Myanmar" — the country name adopted by the junta in 1989 — when he met Thein Sein. However, the U.S. will keep using "Burma" in official documents. Thein Sein was accorded the protocol due to a foreign president, yet his Washington welcome paled compared to that granted to Aung San Suu Kyi. Human rights activists and Myanmar campaigners have sharply criticized the administration for inviting Thein Sein, arguing it sends the wrong message and wastes leverage to press for further democratic change. Outside the White House on Monday, about 30 activists opposing Thein Sein's visit protested corruption in the government and treatment of ethnic Kachins in a northern region blighted by fighting between army and rebel forces.
Ahead of Thein Sein's trip, Myanmar released at least 19 political prisoners in what has become a pattern for amnesties that coincide with high-profile international meetings as a way of highlighting the government's benevolent policies. Right groups say at least 160 political detainees are still held. The government has permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its notorious prisons for the first time in seven years. But hasn't allowed adequate humanitarian access to conflict zones where tens of thousands have been displaced. Authorities have failed to stop, and may have abetted in some cases, an explosion in communal violence that has killed hundreds and led to segregation of Muslim communities.
The U.S. State Department on Monday again designated Myanmar as a country of special concern for its severe violations of religious freedom, as it has since 1999 in an annual global assessment. The U.S. Campaign for Burma said Thein Sein's trip follows a troubling downward trend in Myanmar, and that "instead of honoring an abusive leader" the U.S. should tie its concessions to conditions.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014