US Policy On Burma/Myanmar – A Review


By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“The United States is a global power. It’s natural it would want a relationship with Myanmar. But China had a monopoly, and if you have to share it, it makes it difficult to swallow.” – Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign policy expert (New York Times – April 17, 2012)

“Sensible foreign policy on Myanmar is being held partly captive to an arcane American internal political process.” – David Steinberg in his article “Myanmar Sanctions Defy Logic” (AT Online 22 August 2012)

Note: The country’s name was changed from Burma to Myanmar in July 1989 by the military junta. However the opposition parties, the exile groups, most ethnic groups, the US and Western nations continue to call the country as Burma. In this paper both these names are used.



Consequent to the phased easing of US sanctions from February to July 2012, the US policy on Myanmar has come under criticism for “moving too fast on Burma”. Michael Green and Daniel Twining of the erstwhile Bush administration have argued that “Burma’s political opening is fragile and reversible. The military retains firm control over parliament, stands ready to repress organized dissent and continues military campaigns against ethnic minorities” (The Washington Post, July 16 2012). The fears of these two Asian specialists are rather unfounded as the reforms have gained momentum and cannot be reversed as most of the analysts on Burma have expressed.

In fact the US has been rather late in engaging Myanmar. If it is sceptic on the likelihood of the reversal of the reforms, the US can always take recourse to reimposition of the sanctions.

Some analysts criticise the US even for renewing the only remaining import sanctions against Myanmar in the first week of August 2012 which has affected the garment sector wherein a number of low paid workers (mostly women) are employed. This move is in contradiction to the slated goals for the graduated easing of sanctions in the last six months. As of now US is the only country which has import sanctions against Myanmar.


The US had cordial relations with Myanmar for four decades since independence. During the period 1948-53, US provided economic assistance to Myanmar and assistance to KMT forces inside the country.

There were a member of high level visits to Myanmar by Vice President Nixon (1953) and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1955) and to US by Prime Minister U Nu (1955), President U Win Maung (1957) and Ne Win (1966).

In 1962 when Ne Win took over the reins he halted the US Aid (mainly in food stuffs) and training of military personnel in USA. In 1974 the US entered into an agreement with Myanmar for fighting against production and trafficking of narcotics and supplied some helicopters for this purpose. Consequent to the prodemocracy riots in 1988, US congressman Stephen Solarz, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs visited Myanmar to meet President Maung Maung and the opposition leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi.

(The above details have been extracted from the article “Burma-US Relations: From Mindon to Clinton” – The Irrawaddy 29 November 2011).

1988 – 2009

The US policy changed drastically after the 1988 prodemocracy uprising. The US stopped its military aid and training. The US initially imposed broad sanctions and then increased the pressure by banning new investments in Myanmar by US nationals and entities, banning imports from Myanmar and imposing visa restrictions on the military officers and those associated with the military junta.

In 1990 the US downgraded its diplomatic relations, consequent to the military junta disregarding the election victory of the NLD.

Despite the strained relations a few visits by US Congressmen and executives to Myanmar took place – US congressman Bill Richardson (1994), Secretary of State Madeline Albright (1995) and US Senator Jim Webb (2009).

In 1997 the US tried to persuade ASEAN from giving membership to Myanmar. In 2005 Condoleezza Rice the then prospective Secretary of State included Myanmar in the six “out posts of tyranny”.

Existing sanctions were hardened and or fresh sanctions imposed under both Clinton and Bush administration in1997, in 2003, in 2007 and in 2008.

A Reuters report (April 9, 2012) gives details of the following seven types of sanctions imposed during this period (1988-2009) along with their scope and the process involved in easing and the legislation under which these were imposed.

  • Ban on issuing U.S. visas to selected Myanmar nationals
  • Restrictions on the provision of financial services to Myanmar
  • Freeze on the assets of selected Myanmar nationals
  • General ban on the import of goods from Myanmar
  • Ban on the import of selected materials from Myanmar or from selected Myanmar nationals or entities
  • Ban on investments in Myanmar by U.S. entities
  • Restrictions on bilateral or multilateral assistance to Myanmar

US virtually threatened to boycott meetings of ASEAN if Myanmar is given (by alphabetic rotation) the chairmanship of the grouping in 2006. ASEAN was saved from the embarrassment when Myanmar agreed to forego its turn. It will now chair the ASEAN in 2014.

With a regime change in focus, the US policy under Clinton and Bush was to maintain maximum pressure on the regime both bilaterally and multilaterally. “US policy for a long time has been based on an objective that was extremely unlikely to be met—a dialogue between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta leading to democratic change. Western sanctions that were put in place to force the dialogue have not bankrupted the government nor pressured leaders toward political reform” wrote Thant Myint U.

2009—2012 (August)

There was a visible shift in the US policy towards South East Asia within a few months of Obama taking over as President. As part of this strategic shift the US Policy on Burma had also changed.

US Senator Jim Webb’s visit to Myanmar in August 2009, though not official, would have had the blessings of Obama’s administration. Jim Webb met Senior General Than Shwe and was able to bail out John Yettaw who was convicted for having trespassed into Suu Kyi’s residence.

It was in September 2009, a marked shift in US policy on Burma was seen, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accepted that the sanctions have not achieved its aim. She remarked “Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion. So going forward we will be employing both of these tools, pursuing our same goals. To help achieve democratic reform we will be engaging directly with Burmese authorities”. BBC reported that this announcement came after talks with international diplomats on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. This policy is often referred to as the “pragmatic engagement”.

At the US-ASEAN meeting at Singapore in November 2009, President Obama met President Thein Sein and the engagement process started with the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Kurt Campbell to Naypyidaw in November 2009. He had discussions with the ruling generals and Aung San Suu Kyi.

A detailed review of the US Policy on Burma since October 2009 is contained in the opening remarks of Joseph Y. Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs made before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 02 June 2011. The review had condemned the 2010 elections as neither free nor fair and blamed the Myanmar authorities for lack of progress in the US-Burma relations.

Since November 2009, there has been a flurry of visits from US officials—Kurt Campbell (November 2009 and May 2010), Scott Marciel (November 2009), Joseph Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (December 2010 and May 2011), US Senator John Mc Cain(June 2011) and Derek Mitchell, Special envoy to Burma (Three trips between Sept and Nov 2011)and Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human rights and Labor (November 2011)—culminating in the visit of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (December 2011).

The easing of sanctions commenced during this landmark visit of Hillary Clinton when she announced that “US would support enhanced cooperation between international financial institutions and Burma, as well as intensified UN health, microfinance and counter-narcotics programme in the country. US has offered US $ 1.2 million in aid to support micro-finance, health care and assistance for the victims of landmines and would also support US university and foundations to increase academic exchange collaboration in health, governance and other matters”.

Between February and July 2012, all the US sanctions imposed on Burma have been waived except for the ban on imports from Myanmar and the arms embargo. Hillary Clinton met President Thein Sein in Cambodia on 14 July 2012 at a business conference where she hailed the progress in reforms in Myanmar and introduced him to the US businessmen gathered over there. On 30 August 2012, the US waived the visa ban for official visits from Burma. President Thein Sein is scheduled to visit New York to attend the UN General Assemby in September 2012.

US had also restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar in July 2012 with Drerek Mitchell taking over as US Ambassador to Myanmar.

US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta hinted in June 2012 at the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore that the military to military ties with Burma severed in 1988 may be resumed depending on the progress in other areas of engagement with Burma.

Factors influencing the US Policy on Burma

China: US administration keeps reiterating that the strategic shift in the policy towards South East Asia and Burma in particular is not out of fear of China or for excluding China. However China’s increasing influence over the region and virtual dominance over Myanmar has been an overriding factor for US changing course on its Burma policy.

“Over the long term China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways” says the US Defence Strategic Review released in January 2012. It deals at length on China’s rise and has indicated the counter measures to be taken in this regard.

China has hinted that US has played a part in the suspension of the US $ 3.6 billion Myitsone Dam Hydro power project which would have benefitted China immensely. Incidentally the announcement on 30 September 2011 by President Thein Sein of the suspension of the project came a day after a meeting of Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin with US Envoy Derek Mitchell in Washington. One wonders whether it was just a coincidence.

Aung San Suu Kyi: US is obsessed with Aung San Suu Kyi and she has been a determining factor for the US policy on Burma. “Standing up for Nobel Peace Laureate has long been a pillar of Washington’s policy toward Burma” wrote Mathew Pennington of AP. He explains further by saying that both Democrats and Republicans appear willing to set aside their differences and get things done in the case of Burma because the president has political cover from the Lady—Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact the easing of US sanctions have been delayed time and again in deference to her wishes, as she had earlier reservations on the likelihood of the reforms being reversed.

Myanmar-North Korea Military Relations: The concern of the US for Myanmar’s military cooperation with North Korea for acquiring missile and nuclear technology has also been a significant factor for the change in the US policy on Burma. The US has been pressing Myanmar to sign the Additional Protocol of the IAEA and to sever military relations with North Korea. The US Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation, Thomas Countryman was in Burma in June 2012 for high level consultations in this regard.

ASEAN: US realised that because of its Burma policy, the interaction with ASEAN as a whole is being affected. Jeffrey Bader, an Obama aide said (prior to Obama’s visit to Singapore for the APEC meet in November 2009) “The statement we are trying to make here is that we are not going to let the Burmese tail wag the ASEAN dog”. US had earlier (1997) failed to persuade the ASEAN to prevent Burma from becoming a member of this grouping.

Thus the US, with its “pivoting” towards ASEAN, had to modify its Burma policy. US and ASEAN are strategic partners since the ASEAN-US Summit meeting held in New York in September 2010. US has since signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and has joined the East Asia Summit (EAS). US had earlier threatened to boycott the ASEAN meetings if Burma took up the chairmanship (in 2006) but now the US has to contend with Burma as the Chair of ASEAN in 2014.

Democratic Reforms and Human Rights: The US had consistently advocated for democratic reforms and human rights in Burma, particularly release of all political prisoners. With this aim it had supported Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement since the 1988 uprising and had adopted a policy of isolation and sanctions. The US condemned the 2010 elections as very undemocratic and neither free nor fair. US had also thrown its weight (in 2010) in the call for creation of an UN Commission of Inquiry into crime against humanity and war crimes in Burma, which was never constituted.

There is a large presence of exiles and human rights groups in USA and they have a strong lobby, to prevent the administration from constructively engaging Myanmar or in putting spokes in the recent measures taken for easing of sanctions. Their arguments are—the same military is in power in civil clothes, the 2008 constitution prevents ushering in of any real democracy in the country and that violation of human rights are still continuing especially in ethnic areas.

In the current scenario, the US seems to have overlooked this aspect except for some verbal condemnations every now and then.


The US policy of regime change and isolation through imposing economic sanctions adopted by both the Clinton and Bush regimes, had not only failed but was counter productive in providing virtual monopoly to China to exert its influence over Myanmar economically, politically and militarily.

Myanmar had changed since March 2011 for its own reasons such as–to have the sanctions lifted, to offset the overwhelming Chinese influence, to integrate its economy with the global system and to gain legitimacy beyond ASEAN, East and South East Asia. It had not changed under pressure from the US but it so happened that by end of 2011 there was a convergence of interests of both US and Myanmar.

The US has changed its policy on Myanmar not out of concerns for human rights and democracy but because of its own strategic interests and diplomatic concerns.

The factors influencing the current US policy on Burma, as elaborated earlier are – China’s increasing influence, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s military relationship with North Korea, ASEAN and concerns for establishing democracy and violation of human rights, though perhaps not in the same order of priority.

With the easing of sanctions, US companies have virtually no restrictions to do business in Burma including with the state owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. There will now be competition to Chinese enterprises. Hopefully the US companies will set an example in looking after the welfare of the people and take into account the environmental concerns.

Myanmar will never be able to have a clean break with China and has to balance its relations with both China and US, as China continues to be the biggest foreign investor, with 69 Chinese MNCs in at least 90 hydropower, oil and natural gas and mining projects and because of China’s long border with Myanmar in the North especially in the areas controlled by ethnics.

For China, Myanmar is a strategic asset providing access to the Indian Ocean. China has expressed through various channels that the US efforts to engage Myanmar are part of the US strategy to contain China’s influence in Myanmar and the region. China has very high stakes in Myanmar. A stable and prosperous Myanmar will be in the best interest of China even after Myanmar opening up to the Western nations.

Myanmar being part of ASEAN, had to be constructively engaged by the US to fit it into the overall policy of increasing US commitments in the Asia Pacific region and Strategic partnership with ASEAN.

Some Analysts are of the view that US has used Aung San Suu Kyi in furtherance of its own interests in Burma and the region. Some other analysts feel that Aung San Suu Kyi has toed the US line as political expediency to perhaps fulfil her ambitions and dreams.

A major drawback in the US policy has been its insistence on political and democratic reforms without a simultaneous push towards national reconciliation with ethnics. Democracy in Myanmar cannot thrive without an amicable political solution to the ethnic problem.

The next elections in 2015 along with the indications of President Thein Sein not seeking a second term is going to be a major test for the US relations with Myanmar.

The shift in US policy is a welcome development to Myanmar as long as the progress on reforms is maintained and the US encourages the process by adequate support and aid.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

2 thoughts on “US Policy On Burma/Myanmar – A Review

  • September 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    U.S. policy on Myanmar has been a dismal failure especially after the Ne Win Coup in March 1962. The American politicians of that day did not give much respect to the Burmese military establishment in general and the bilateral relations deteriorated when the General was treated “quite shabily” on his arrival at a U.S. airport. Ne Win took that as a deliberate personal insult and from then on anything American or anyone with even a remote connection or relation with America was taboo.

    The U.S. made no special effort to improve relations with the Revolutionary Council thinking mistakenly that it did not have the capability and the capacity for Nw Win to stay in power for long. Things came to a head when the Americans pressured the Thais to allow Ex-Premier U Nu and his crowd of incompetents to stage an armed rebellion together with the ethnic Karen, Kayas, Mons, Shans, Kachin insurgents supported by funds channeled via the Howard Hughes organization whose origins were known to all in the business of “regime change” business of U.S. policy-makers. Today, no one talks about these unsavory actions and elements that the Americans used to destabilize a regime and remove the person it doen’t like from power.

    Having said the above, it unfortunate, sad and regretable to “read in print” that the U.S. would even think of using Suu Kyi as their “isnstrument” to cultivate a “foot-hold” with the reform government of Thein Sein with the larger objective to “encircle China”. This is very short-sighted as always and will backfire. The Americans need to think through this carefully and not underestimate the S.E. Asia Region’s capability and capacity to counteract for such a “hegemonic” attempt by a declining “so-called only super power (bankrupt at that).

    Naphetchun MaungSein
    California USA

  • September 6, 2012 at 7:41 am

    In Myanmar International relation, Regionalism seems to be the priority. With the five basic principles,Myanmar has been good relation with China for a long time and set up the strategic relation with China. U.S and Western countries’ sanctions drive Myanmar near the China. Myanmar Transformation to a democratic society is chosen by themselves not the economic sanctions. Now Myanmar is really a game-changer for Asia and the Super powers.Therefore, Myanmar becomes a yummy for the interest of U.S who try to improve Asia and pacific region and strategy partnership with Asia countries. I think Myanmar try to get the favorable world order and beautified her image in international relation. With constraints of principles, U.S will takes more time to improve U.S Myanmar relation.
    Htein Win


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