Prospects for Rapprochement between the United States and Myanmar

By Clapp, Priscilla | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Prospects for Rapprochement between the United States and Myanmar


Clapp, Priscilla, Contemporary Southeast Asia


If rapprochement is defined as the establishment or resumption of harmonious relations, one must conclude that it is premature to apply this concept to the current state of relations between the United States and Myanmar. While the shift in US policy towards Myanmar's military junta--the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)--which seeks to balance sanctions with engagement, could, under the right circumstances, lead in this direction, we have not seen rapprochement yet and may not see it for some time to come. Therefore, it is probably more appropriate to describe the current state of US-Myanmar relations as "suspended animation", with both sides waiting for the completion of Myanmar's transition process to decide whether it will create an environment conducive to engagement and possibly rapprochement as well.

US relations with Myanmar have been stuck in neutral gear for at least two decades, with the engine running, but propelling the vehicle neither forwards nor backwards. During this period, major changes have occurred in Southeast Asia, leading to much broader and more cordial relations between the United States and all ASEAN members, except Myanmar. Yet, in the case of US-Myanmar relations, until recently the fundamentals of the relationship had been barely revisited by either side for decades. While a stubborn, entrenched regime concentrated single-mindedly on consolidating its grip on internal power, repressing and impoverishing its population in the process, a frustrated superpower piled on layers of punishing sanctions in the interest of supporting Myanmar's embattled political opposition.

Is the time of reckoning now approaching? The Obama administration's seven-month review of US policy towards Myanmar in 2009 was Washington's first comprehensive reassessment of the bilateral relationship in decades. The review happened to coincide with the final stages of the SPDC's "seven-step plan" for replacing two decades of martial law with "discipline-flourishing democracy". The aim of this paper is to explore whether genuine rapprochement between the United States and Myanmar can emerge from this convergence of events.

Underlying Factors

In the United States

The Obama administration came to office with the stated intention of reorienting US foreign policy towards greater collaboration and cooperation with international partners and opening the door to engagement with previously shunned "outposts of tyranny". The idea was that confrontation, particularly in a unilateral form, might not be the best or only means of achieving US policy objectives with unfriendly governments. (1) Immediately after President Obama's inauguration, the new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled to Asia, including Southeast Asia, where she expressed frustration with the failure of either sanctions or engagement strategies to exert a positive influence on the behaviour of Myanmar's military regime. (2) Secretary Clinton announced that the new administration would be reviewing America's Myanmar policy and, upon her return to Washington, initiated this review.

During the long period of policy stasis in US-Myanmar relations, both sides did, of course, make small policy adjustments in response to events, which over time had the effect of modifying policy direction somewhat. In the case of the United States, these adjustments included additional sanctions when the regime cracked down on opposition groups (such as following the Depayin Incident in 2003), but there were also a series of more positive moves during the past decade to expand US humanitarian assistance to Myanmar. In fact, the United States became one of the largest donor governments in the international response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The policy review of 2009 allowed Washington to take full account of the various threads of past US policy and activities concerning Myanmar and to re-evaluate US interests in that country and the region in the context of current and prospective conditions and events. …

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