June 12, 2011

MYANMAR: US Policy of “Pragmatic Engagement” -Not So Pragmatic

By C. S. Kuppuswamy


In 2009 the US, on realising that its policy on Myanmar has not had the desired impact, embarked on a two-track strategy of engagement with the Myanmar authorities and at the same time continue with the economic sanctions to push for reforms. This is now being often referred to as “pragmatic engagement”. Even with this pragmatic engagement, US has made no headway in its relations with Myanmar.

Expectations were high after the general elections and when the military junta 0n 30 March 2011 dissolved the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). A civilian government was put in place with former Prime Minister Thein Sein as President.

A Voice of America report then said that the US dismissed the so called transfer of power in Burma as “immaterial” as the military leaders continue to remain in control.

A major development since then has been the appointment of a special envoy to Myanmar and a flurry of visits by US officials to Myanmar.

Derek Mitchell, the Principal assistant secretary of Defense for Asian & Pacific Security affairs, has been nominated as a special envoy to Burma. The appointment is still to be confirmed. On this appointment Suu Kyi remarked “I am a cautions optimist” perhaps hinting that it would not make things any better. In view of the fact that the UN envoys could not do much in the last decade or so, the task is not going to be in anyway easy for the US envoy.

Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia along with his deputy Scot Marciel visited Myanmar in November 2009 and had talks with the ruling Generals and Aung San Suu Kyi. They were the first high ranking American diplomats to visit Myanmar since 1995. Kurt Campbell visited Myanmar again in May 2010,when he was allowed to meet Suu /kyi at a state guest house in Rangoon. He warned that the election will lack international legitimacy and that Burma’s arms deals with North Korea are against UN sanctions that prohibit buying arms from North Korea.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacific affairs, Joseph Y. Yun had visited Myanmar in December 2010 and again in May 2011.

US Senator John McCain visited Myanmar from 01-03 June 2011. After meeting some government officials he said it was “clear” that the new Government wanted a better relationship with the United States. He had also met Suu Kyi and pledged to support efforts to foster democracy. He had also warned in a press meet that Myanmar could face a Middle East-style revolution if the new government fails to implement democratic reforms.

US charge d’ affairs, Larry Dinger, the top diplomat in Myanmar confirmed to the media in Feb 2011 that:

“Of course, the United States is engaging in a dialogue with Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the NLD about US assistance programmes in Burma,"

"We also engaged with the authorities in Naypyidaw and other stakeholders on such important issues in the effort to consider all important perspectives in the formulating of US policies toward Burma,"

There have been calls from some ASEAN countries and political parties in Myanmar for lifting of sanctions in view of the formation of the Civil Government. Rejecting these calls, US on 16 May 2011 has renewed its economic sanctions against Myanmar. President Obama while renewing the sanctions in a formal notice to the Congress said that Burma was taking actions “hostile to US interests”.

While some senators have argued in favour of the stand taken by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, for continuance of the sanctions, some think tanks and Burma watchers are of the opinion that it is time for the US to rethink as the sanctions have served the desired purpose. On the contrary they argue that the sanctions have strengthened the regime, weakened the opposition, created a bitterness towards the west and have given China and neighbouring countries a great economic opportunity.

Review of US Policy

A detailed review of the US Policy on Burma since October 2009 is contained in the opening remarks of Joe Yun, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs made before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 02 June 2011. It is worth noting some excerpts of the official.

The Administration firmly believes that easing sanctions at this time (after transition to the Civilian Government in March 2011) is premature, absence of fundamental reform or other regime actions to address core international concerns, and that Burma's poor economic performance is primarily due to the regime’s gross economic mismanagement and pervasive corruption.”

“Burmese authorities continue to express a desire for improved relations with the United States and identified several confidence-building measures that they would like from the United States, including our use of “Myanmar” instead of Burma as the official name of the country and our direct assistance toward achieving the country’s Millennium Development Goals.”

“The United States clearly and consistently condemned the elections as neither free nor fair.”

“With former regime officials occupying most key positions in all branches of government, the United States is not optimistic that we will see any immediate change in policies or progress on our core concerns.”

“The United States alone cannot achieve progress in Burma. We are tirelessly working with our European allies and our ASEAN and regional partners to urge the Burmese government to constructively engage with the international community and address these long-standing issues. India and China remain important to this issue.”

This review is a more an “action taken report” without indicating any progress achieved in US-Myanmar relations and shifts the total blame on to the Myanmar authorities for the current status of relations.

Some comments on US Policy

“At this stage, Aung San Suu Kyi is still a determining factor in U.S. policy towards Burma/ Myanmar. Her status in the post-election period may determine U.S. Policy toward that country for a considerable period.” – David I. Steinberg.

“If the US continues to press the regime about its relationship with Pyongyang, as seems highly likely, tensions between Washington and Naypyidaw are bound to grow, making a constructive dialogue on other issues even more difficult. Should it be discovered that Burma is indeed violating one or more UNSC Resolutions, President Obama would have no option but to revert to a much tougher line. This outcome may satisfy critics of the Administration's current policy, but it will not bring the resolution of Burma's domestic problems any closer.” - Andrew Selth, Griffith Asia Institute.

"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 [who was recently released after 17 years in jail and under house arrest] 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. What they have done is severely weaken the position of independent businessmen and the middle classes on whom an open society depends." -Thant Myint-U

“The US should consider Myanmar through a broader lens with a holistic consideration of its foreign policy interests in the region, including nuclear non-proliferation. Reorienting US policy towards Myanmar does not mean casting aside human-rights issues, which were the initial motivation for imposing economic sanctions.” - Shanan Farmer, Alex Roesler and Christina McDonnell (AT online 07 June 2011).


The US policy is dictated by growing support from Congress for continuance of sanctions, and a strong pro-democracy lobby of the expatriate groups. However it is time for the US to rethink on its policy on Burma. While due deference must be given to Aung San Suu Kyi’s views, the US should not be obsessed with democracy and human rights and think of the larger interests of the nation, the people and the US interests in the region. A good beginning, although a minor gesture would be to recognise the new name Myanmar instead of Burma.

Though it is said to be a "two track policy", what is seen on the ground is a "one track policy" of continuing the sanctions. Sanctions have not worked and will not work so long as China and India the two large neighbours are not taken on board. These two countries are in no mood to go along with the US on the question of sanctions. A break through is necessary and it is for the US to take the initiative when the new government has indicated its desire to improve its relations.

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