Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Delicate Relationship: The United States and Burma/Myanmar since 1945

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Delicate Relationship: The United States and Burma/Myanmar since 1945

Article excerpt

A delicate relationship: The United States and Burma/Myanmar since 1945


Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 409. Figures, Map, Endnotes, Appendix, Bibliography, Index.


In November 2012, Barack Obama paid the first visit to Burma, or Myanmar, by a US head of state. The widely-shared photograph of the American president embracing an uncomfortable Aung San Suu Kyi, kissing her cheek in a move breaching Myanmar's social etiquette, could have provided a good illustration of the 'delicate' relationship--as the title of Kenton Clymer's new study suggests--that the United States has attempted to establish with the former British colony. Bilateral interactions since the end of the Second World War have long been 'friendly and correct, but not cordial' (p. 204), and this book seeks to understand why.

With this rich and dense monograph, Clymer--a Distinguished Research Professor at Northern Illinois University and a 2011-2012 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where he started this research--sheds light on the various dimensions that have undergirding seven decades of Washington's Burmese policies. No other book has offered such archival details; not even John Cady's The United States and Burma (Harvard University Press, 1976), which was solely concerned with Burmese domestic events.

The core value of Clymer's work lies in the meticulous archival research he has carried out, and for which he must be commended. The author has indeed not only delved into massive folders of US diplomatic cables and telegrams about post-1945 Burmese state affairs. (All were subtly complemented with a handful of British and Australian archival data). But he has also scrutinised congressional public hearings, private papers of key US politicians from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, and collected face-to-face interviews with retired diplomats, Washington-based lobbyists, and former policy advisers to enrich the analysis of post-1980s events and foreign policies.

The result is a thickly descriptive, yet highly readable monograph, with a flurry of details and footnotes that fellow historians and Burma aficionados will most certainly enjoy. There are such archival minutiae that the sporadic errors or typos are easily pardonable (for instance: the Thakins were not all students, as Sayagyi Thakin Kodaw Hmaing illustrates on pp. 22-4; Premier U Nu thought about the reconvening of the parliament elected in 1960 and dissolved in 1962, not 1963, on p. 225).

Clymer has opted for a classical approach to history writing, looking at 'fluctuation and continuity in the relationship' (p. 2) and presenting a chronological narrative of the American perceptions, involvement, and strategic interests in, and on, postcolonial Myanmar. Each of the 14 chapters (the book lacks a conclusion) is devoted to the analysis of a few consecutive years of the post-1945 relationship until the later part of the second Obama administration (2012-16).

The book proposes three distinct periods of analysis of the US approach to Myanmar's post-1945 political affairs and strategic context. First, it explores the early Cold War years when the recendy decolonised, left-leaning Burmese state chose a non-aligned credo (1940s to 1960s). America's policy circles and their regional allies (including the Kuomintang forces stationed in northern Shan State during the 1950s) had to gradually learn to live with this peculiar diplomatic stance. Second, it focuses on the isolation imposed by General Ne Win's xenophobic and inward-looking rule after 1962. The United States then merely found in the military regime a reliable partner for its regional anti-narcotics efforts (1970s-80s). …

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