Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

United States-Myanmar Relations: On the Threshold of Rapprochement? A Response

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

United States-Myanmar Relations: On the Threshold of Rapprochement? A Response

Article excerpt

Priscilla Clapp's article very clearly describes the pragmatic new US policy approach to Myanmar adopted by the Obama administration, and the very deep-seated obstacles in both countries that stand in the way of genuine rapprochement. The paper accurately concludes that there is realistically no chance of this happening in the near future, even after the elections scheduled for 7 November 2010.

The deep-seated obstacles include the fact that, for the past twenty years, the focus of US policy has almost exclusively been on the personal leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi framed in terms of democracy and human rights. The objective of US policy was to remove the military dictatorship and replace it with the parliament elected in 1990 under the leadership of Suu Kyi. While this policy focus has shifted slightly under Obama, Suu Kyi is still central to US policy on Myanmar. As recently as 24 September 2010, the US government reiterated that the elections could not be seen as credible as long as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest. (1)

For Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), this validates their claim that Suu Kyi is being used by colonial forces (British) and neocolonial forces (US) to subjugate Myanmar: Suu Kyi was not allowed to compete in the 1990 elections; she was under house arrest; political prisoners were not released; the election campaign was not "free and fair" by any standards; and the media were as restricted then as now. Yet the US and the international community hailed the 1990 elections as credible. From the military's point of view, what has changed to make the 2010 elections illegitimate? Was it because Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in 1990 and has no chance of winning in 2010?

The regime will certainly not release Suu Kyi before the elections, let alone allow her to compete. This means that Washington will not be able to improve relations with Myanmar as long as she remains the focus of US policy. Suu Kyi remains a crucial figure, and she may be the only person able to hold Myanmar together in any future transition to a democracy; but if the US is serious about improving relations with Myanmar, it needs to take into account other factors that may be equally important.

As described in Ms Clapp's paper, the SPDC's primary goal is to maintain power. Improving ties with the United States, or any other country or organization including the United Nations, is secondary. Therefore, no matter what pressure Washington or other external actors bring to bear on Nyapyidaw, it will not release Suu Kyi because she is perceived as a threat to regime survival. Myanmar's military (the Tatmadaw) refuses to entertain the possibility of her assuming a leadership role. To the generals, it would be tantamount to surrendering the country's sovereignty to the colonialists and neocolonialists. The regime simply cannot, and will not, accept the premise that they are the villains and she is the saviour of Myanmar. Neither will the regime risk losing the elections by allowing them to be genuinely "free and fair". Nor will it release political prisoners and allow unfettered media coverage. All these factors impinge on the security of the regime and nothing will be allowed to challenge its supremacy.

The only hope the article holds out for a possible opening for better relations is if the new government is composed of different faces and the parliament produces a significant number of independent opposition figures including non-Burman ethnic leaders. And if the government adopts more open policies--such as the release of political prisoners and the introduction of economic reform--the process of rapprochement might inch forward. Yet as the author points out, this is extremely unlikely, given the SPDC's approach towards the elections.

Does this then mean that the Obama administration's new Myanmar policy is destined to fail? …

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