As Myanmar undergoes a process of positive transformation, two approaches have been prescribed with regards to dealing with such forces of change. The first approach, primarily propagated by the West, is proactive in its content. It advocates that the process of change in Myanmar must be acknowledged and encouraged through rewards. On the other hand, the second school mostly predominated by the pro-democracy and civil liberty groups established both within and outside Myanmar, prescribes caution. There is little doubt that the official stopover by US President Barack Obama on 19 November 2012, the first ever sitting President to have visited the country, has emboldened the first school of thought.
Obama, during his six-hour halt, insisted that his visit was not an endorsement of the Thein Sein regime. He, however, underlined the need to deliver a note of congratulations to the regime for having done the unthinkable. He asserted that the changes in Myanmar- “opening the door to a country that respects human rights and political freedom”- are for real and needs the support of the world.
There is a wider feeling in the region that for Myanmar, which still has a long way to go in establishing democracy as well as a benchmark for the well-being of its multiple ethnicities; the visit by the US President, albeit with a self-proclaimed goal of pushing for reforms, came far too early. Obama’s statement that the wait for a “perfect democracy” in Myanmar might imply an “awful long time”, somewhat vindicated this conclusion.
While an idealistic, perfect democracy is an impractical dream to pursue, long-term Myanmar watchers point at a range of issues that still remain unaddressed in the Thein Sein government’s year-long reforms process. There has been little progress in the realm of constitutional reforms, which in its present form, secures the dominance of the military. The record of the regime in ending ethnic conflicts, especially in the context of the Kachins, highlights the division between the hardliners and the reformists within the military. The government’s posture during the recent Rohingya-Buddhist riots in the Rakhine state underlines its under-preparedness in terms of taking up the role of an unbiased arbiter of justice.
With this backdrop, Obama’s visit appears to have two dimensions, despite it being seemingly symptomatic of the West’s impatience to embrace Myanmar. Firstly, the US wishes to take advantage of Myanmar’s economic potential. Secondly, the rush is also a part of the “Pivot to Asia” strategy in which all Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar, are critical components.
Multinational Corporations are keen to tap opportunities in the region in order to give substantial competition to their Chinese counterparts, who have already been operating in Myanmar for several years. In November, the Myanmar Parliament passed a foreign-investment law removing some of the restrictions on foreign ownership of joint ventures. In early 2013, it will pass the new mining law reforming the existing law that was formulated in 1994. Myanmar’s Ministry of Mines has identified China, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia and the US as prospective participants in the growth of this sector. It is difficult for the US to not be a part of the euphoria that potential investment opportunities in Myanmar could bring. The early assessments regarding Myanmar’s abysmal state of preparedness to absorb the attention it is receiving at the moment have not deterred such optimism.
More importantly, the rush is also for advancing the US pivot in Asia. On 18 November 2012, a day before Obama’s stopover, Myanmarese naval officers boarded the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard in the Andaman Sea. In October, a delegation of thirty military and civilian US officials visited Myanmar, in what could be the most comprehensive push for military to military dialogue between the two countries. The US is also reportedly considering the idea, mooted by Thailand, to let three Myanmarese officers visit Cobra Gold, the largest multi-lateral annual military exercise in the Asia-Pacific, as observers. Scheduled discussions are continuing to include Myanmarese leaders in some of the US military’s academic circles. The growing view in Washington is that the support of Myanmar’s military is essential to any lasting reforms or peace agreements with ethnic minorities. At the same time, the US appears determined to take Myanmar as an important partner in many of its military priorities in Southeast Asia, including anti-piracy and freedom of navigation.
During her November 2012 visit to India, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had cautioned against the sense of sanguinity Myanmar now generates all over the world. Warning against over-optimism about political changes in Myanmar, she advised a middle path- “Not to be over-optimistic, at the same time to be encouraging of what needs to be encouraged”. However, the fact remains that the pace of reforms, which in President Obama’s words “none foresaw”, appears to have done away with the need to be circumspect.
Whether Myanmar would be willing to abandon China and throw its entire lot with the US remains to be seen. Nonetheless, in the coming months, the US’s nascent engagement with Myanmar is sure to produce a remarkable spectre of competing strategic manoeuvring in the region.
This article appeared at IPCS and is reprinted with permission.