By B. Raman
The three-day (Nov.30—Dec 2, 2011) visit of Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, to Myanmar — the first by a US Secretary of State since the visit of Johan Foster Dulles in 1955 — indicated the growing self-confidence of President Thein Sein that the cautious policy of domestic reforms and external opening-up initiated by him had the support of the serving military officers.
This self-confidence came out clearly in the assurances reportedly conveyed by his Government to Mrs. Clinton that the reforms and opening-up are real and will be irreversible. The only threat to the new policy could have come from the serving military officers. The slow pace of the promised release of the political prisoners — 200 plus released and about 1600 still in detention — had given rise to speculation regarding possible resistance from serving military officers to the proposed release of all the political prisoners. This speculation still persists since there have been no more releases for some weeks now.
However, the Government has been going ahead with its policy of political reconciliation with the pro-democracy forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) has already decided to register itself as a political party to enable it to contest the bye-elections due in the coming months Suu Kyi is widely expected to contest one of them.
The policy of gradual opening-up initiated by the Government has three components— release of all political prisoners and relaxation of oppressive laws relating to media freedom and the right to hold public meetings and take out processions, facilitating the de jure induction of Suu Kyi and her NLD into the political process and mending relations with the West to pave the way for the removal of the economic sanctions imposed by them and the resumption of the flow of economic assistance from the West and international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The visit of Mrs. Clinton so soon after the East Asia summit at Bali in Indonesia last month at which Myanmar and Cambodia were reportedly the only countries to have supported the Chinese stand on the South China Sea issue clearly indicated the keenness of the Myanmar Government to give a new orientation to its foreign policy despite its anxiety not to tread on the toes of China while so doing.
China will continue to be an important factor in Myanmar for some years to come because of the economic dependence on Beijing and the close links between the armies of the two countries. A peeved China can play a spoiler by instigating the pro-China military officers trained by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to resist any aspect of the new policy that may not be palatable to China.
Till the Western countries remove the economic sanctions and aid from the West and the international institutions starts flowing in again thereby enabling the Government to dilute its dependence on China, the Government cannot afford to ignore the likely concerns of China.
Beijing’s concerns relate not so much to the domestic political reforms as to the decisions of a strategic nature that may be taken by the Government under prodding from the US that could dilute the strategic primacy enjoyed by China in Myanmar. Vietnam and Myanmar are two countries of major concern to China from the point of view of its national security and Beijing will be closely monitoring the developments relating to the relations of the two countries with the US and India.
China has already made no secret of its concerns over the decision of the Myanmar Government to suspend the construction of a big hydel power project by a Chinese company in the Kachin State to supply electricity to Yunnan. The Thein Sein Government has taken care to reassure Beijing that there will be no more reversals of past economic decisions of which China was the main beneficiary and that the closer relations with the US will not be at the expense of the primacy enjoyed by China in the Government’s strategic calculation. How to gradually reduce the dependence on China without seeming to do so is a question which would be constantly engaging the attention of the Thein Sein Government. Unless and until substantial economic assistance starts flowing in quickly, the Government will not be in a position to even contemplate any major change in its policies towards China.
The lifting of economic sanctions and the flow of substantial economic assistance are not for tomorrow. This became clear during the visit of Mrs. Clinton. Two concrete indicators of forward movement were the decision to re-establish full-fledged diplomatic relations at the Ambassadorial level and a token grant of US $ 1.2 million for health care and micro-credit projects.
Mrs. Clinton reportedly made the lifting of economic sanctions and the flow of economic assistance conditional on four steps being taken by the Thein Sein Government—the release of the remaining political prisoners, improvement in human rights, a peace process with the ethnic minorities and breaking-off of Myanmar’s relations with North Korea with a full accounting of the alleged assistance from North Korea in the nuclear field.
While the first three conditions should not cause any major problem to the Thein Sein Government, the last one relating to North Korea could. Would it cause concern in Beijing? What would be the reaction of the serving military officers to this condition? Would the US insist on the immediate implementation of this condition or would it be prepared to go slow on this keeping in view the sensitivity of this condition? These are questions to which clear-cut answers are not available.
On the whole, the US has reasons to be gratified with the visit which went off without any friction and with signs of considerable mutual goodwill. Initially, Mrs. Clinton visited Naypyidaw, the State capital, for meetings with President Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw (Burma’s lower legislative house) Thura Shwe Mann. She then went to Yangon for two meetings with Suu Kyi.
While not many details were forthcoming of Mrs. Clinton’s 45-minutes talks with President Thein Sein, more details were available of her meeting with the Speaker, who seems to be playing an important role in the opening-up process. He was quoted by one of his colleagues as having told Mrs. Clinton that there would be no military coup or military government in the future and that there would be no reversal of the policy of democratic reforms.
Suu Kyi said after her meeting with Mrs. Clinton: “We are happy with the way in which the United States is engaging with us. It is through engagement that we hope to promote the process of democratization. Because of this engagement, I think our way ahead will be clearer and we will be able to trust that the process of democratization will go forward. We are prepared to go further if reforms maintain momentum. But history teaches us to be cautious. We know that there have been serious setbacks and grave disappointments over the past decades.”