Saturday, January 14, 2012

U.S. to name ambassador to Burma


(Mizzima) – The United States will post an ambassador to Burma, an acknowledgment of Burma’s progress toward democracy, the Voice of America said on Saturday. The post has been vacant for two decades.

A series of reforms in Burma, including the sweeping release of political prisoners on Friday, has led U.S President Barack Obama’s administration to seek closer ties. Obama called Burma's decision to release hundreds of political prisoners “a substantial step forward for democratic reform.”

The Burmese government freed 651 prisoners on Friday, including key leaders in activist and ethnic groups.

The release comes after a visit to Burma of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made clear a prisoner release was a condition for better relations. Clinton both said that more political reforms would be needed for the U.S. to offer direct aid to Burma. Washington withdrew its ambassador more than 20 years ago, after the military council ruling Burma at the time ignored the results of the opposition’s overwhelming victory in the 1990 election.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, noted other signs of progress in Burma, such as a major U.S. business delegation scheduled to visit Burma, which some see as an economic opportunity on par with Vietnam after it opened up in the early 1990s.  Business delegations from Japan have also been eying many sectors in the country.

Kurlantzick noted three other key conditions for better U.S. relations including the choice of the right ambassador.

“Burma isn’t France or Singapore; it remains a highly opaque government with many leaders extremely suspicious of the growing détente with the West,” he said. “As happened after the United States restored diplomatic ties with Vietnam and Laos, the administration will need to find an ambassador with extensive experience and contacts in the country, and should possibly look outside the Foreign Service, whether to U.S. academics focusing on Burma, or to its own Special Envoy, Derek Mitchell, to serve as ambassador.”

Another essential condition, he said, is gaining access to wider regions of the country.

“The prisoner releases, the cease-fires, the plans for the National League for Democracy to contest by-elections – all of these reforms are on the right path, and shocking to people following Burma just two or three years ago,” he said. “But U.S. officials need to be able to get into the ethnic minority regions of the country, particularly in the north and the northeast, to see whether regional army commanders are actually adhering to cease-fires.”

Last, the U.S. must “spend far more time trying to find ways to collaborate with China,” he said.

“Chinese officials are clearly worried that the U.S. détente may come at their expense, particularly if Western companies will eventually be swarming into Burma. Yet the growing diplomatic relationship need not come at China’s expense; China will remain Burma’s biggest donor, investor, and diplomatic partner.”         

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