Monday, November 28, 2011

What is driving closer ties between the U.S. and Burma?

Monday, 28 November 2011 16:31 Salai Z. T. Lian

(Commentary) – Since the new Burmese government was inaugurated in March 2011, it began a reform process by meeting with opposite leader Aung San Suu Kyi, releasing about 200 political prisoners, securing the chair The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014, relaxing media censorship somewhat, forming the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), engaging in talk with non-cease-fire ethnic armed groups, and amending the political party registration laws.

In reality, these unexpected changes surprised most Burma observers including opposition groups. In return, the government desperately wants to receive positive recognition from domestic opposite groups and Western countries – particularly the U.S. which has been a long-standing critic. It wants a regular relationship with the U.S. and an end to Western sanctions.

Recently, it has gained positive responses from President Barrack Obama and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Obama announced this month that he would send Secretary Hillary Clinton to Burma, and the U.S. is open to forging a new relationship with Burma. She is set to meet with President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw in December, and to meet with opposite leader Suu Kyi in Yangon.

Ban Ki-Moon also said that he received an invitation to visit from President Thein Sein.

The Burmese government will likely urge Clinton to end sanctions against Burma, and to officially recognize the country’s name as Myanmar. Her visit will lend credit to the new government on the domestic and international scene, sending a strong message that Burma is starting to open up.

China will probably send one of its top officials to Burma soon in order to respond to Clinton’s visit. In a recent press conference, Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Man said that Burma’s relationship with the U.S. would not affect its ties with China. The competition between China and the U.S. can positively impact the development of Burma, if the Burmese government manages it well.

Regardless of the government’s poor performance on human rights, justice and ethnic minority affairs, the U.S. wants to get more involved in the process of democratic change through encouraging tactics instead of condemning and isolating the government. At the same, it will continue to urge it to speed up the reform process and to improve its human rights record. The first priority to establish better ties with Burma is likely to counter the rise of China in Southeast Asia. In fact, Burma is struggling to get out from its total dependence on China economically and politically.

The reality of the U.S. foreign policy change towards Burma is because of its national interests. That doesn’t mean that it is not concerned about Burma. But it means it will advocate change in Burma, even though it puts its national interests first in dealing with the government rather than human rights, national reconciliation or  the release of all political prisoners in Burma. In fact, the ties between the two countries could push the process of change in Burma politically and economically in the right direction.

The two countries must first a develop friendship and trust, and then the matters of regional security, bilateral economic cooperation and the end of economic sanctions will follow. They both are seeking to grab this diplomatic opportunity to forge better ties which can benefit both countries.

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