What triggers former foes to become friends and then listen to each other on their mutual interests is one puzzle political scientists tend to ask themselves. This is what we see in the bilateral relations of the United States and Myanmar.
Until a year ago, Myanmar faced sanctions and its former military generals were denied visas to the United States. The dual-track policy of the Obama administration, which began in 2009, has gradually mended the once strained relations.
President Thein Sein’s visit to the White House on May 20 was a testament to improved relations. It was the first head of state visit to Washington in 47 years. The former military ruler General Ne Win last visited Washington in 1966.
Thein Sein’s visit comes less than a year from President Obama’s visit to Myanmar last November, the first sitting US President to have visited the country. The primary reason behind the White House’s invitation to the Myanmar president was to show its support for the ongoing democratic reforms and to discuss possible ways how Washington can help.
What have changed the bilateral relations? There are a number of factors, but the most crucial ones are the release of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, the accommodation of National League for Democracy and its elected representatives in the parliament, and cessation of violence with most of the ethnic armed groups.
US-Myanmar relations in the past few years have been largely based on a quid pro quo or tit for tat strategy. Some analysts also call it action for action or give and take strategy. The Myanmar government has meticulously responded to the US demands for rapprochement. One best example is on the issue of political prisoners.
In October 11, 2011, the Myanmar government released 220 political prisoners. In response, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a three-day visit to Myanmar, which was the first US Secretary of State’s visit since John Foster Dulles in 1955.
In January and February 2012, on the anniversary of the country’s Independence Day and Union Day, the Myanmar government released more than 600 political prisoners, including prominent student leaders of the 1988 democracy uprising and ethnic minority leaders.
In response, the US government decided to resume diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. The US-Myanmar diplomatic representation was downgraded to Chargé d’affaires in the aftermath of the 1988 democracy uprising and the subsequent nullification of the 1990 general election results.
Another significant US response was the suspension of investment sanctions on July 11 and import bans on September 26, 2012. Those initiatives allowed international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to reestablish its links with Myanmar.
Just ahead of President Thein Sein’s visit to Washington, the Myanmar government released at least 20 political prisoners on May 17. This is one reason why rights activists and democracy campaigners have criticized the Thein Sein government of using prisoners as a pawn and for public relations purposes.
There are mutual benefits in any bilateral relations. No country would establish diplomatic relations with other nations unless it has some kind of interest, either implicitly or explicitly. Such interest could range from economy to politics or pertaining to global strategic calculation.
What are the US interests on Myanmar and vice-versa? The US interests can be summed up as economic, political, and strategic. The permanent lifting of sanctions enables the US companies to invest in Myanmar, which in turn benefit both countries economically.
Politically, the US wants to maintain its global leadership status as a champion of democracy and human rights. By inviting Thein Sein to the White House, the Obama administration shows its support for the reform initiatives of Myanmar government and a commitment to help.
Strategically, Washington wants to reassert its presence in the region as it intends to build closer ties with the Southeast Asian nations. By strengthening ties with Myanmar, Washington also attempts to compete and contain the rising China, which is Myanmar’s biggest investor.
Myanmar interests on the United States can be broadly discussed under economy and politics. Normalizing relations with the US will not only attract investment companies, but it will also boost bilateral trades, both in terms of imports and exports. It will also help Myanmar secure loans and other financial assistance from international institutions associated with the United States.
Politically, the Myanmar government, still dominated by former military generals, wants the support and recognition of the United States, especially on the eve of assuming the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations in 2014. Moreover, President Thein Sein wants to prove to the military hardliners in Myanmar, who are skeptical of the reforms, that he has the support of the international community.
The Myanmar government will gradually seek the support of US government in developing its security infrastructure, rule of law, education, health, and poverty reduction. Another important agenda of the Thein Sein trip was to convince the US government to lift the remaining sanctions, targeted at individuals and companies.
Thein Sein’s trip to Washington is a triumph of quip pro quo diplomacy pursued by both nations. Though uncertainties still remain in Myanmar, head of state’s visit in 47 years shows Washington’s approval of the ongoing reform process.
If softliners and hardliners within the Myanmar military see confidence in its democracy roadmap, provided that there is continued support from the international community, Thein Sein’s visit to Washington can possibly pave the way for amending the 2008 constitution.
Amending or rewriting the exiting constitution is not only important but it is a necessity for a true democracy to develop. Whether the Thein Sein government can convince Washington to officially call the country name ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ is another issue to address.