A new chapter

Print edition : March 09, 2012

President Thein Sein with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the President's Office in Nay Pyi Taw on December 1, 2011.-AP

Myanmar is now the new frontier for American aid and businesses as the U.S. prepares to lift sanctions against the country.

THERE is more to the West's sudden embrace of the military government in Myanmar than meets the eye. Until last year, Myanmar was among the countries that the West targeted for regime change. After the ruling military junta sent emissaries to Western capitals promising accelerated democratic reforms, there was a dramatic volte-face in Washington's and the European Union's (E.U.) policy towards Myanmar. Many of the economic sanctions, applied unilaterally by the West, are on the verge of being lifted after United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in November-December last year.

It was the first high-profile visit to the country by an American official in more than 50 years. The visit came immediately after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would back the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries in their territorial disputes with China. While announcing the visit of his Secretary of State at the Bali ASEAN summit in November, Obama said Hillary Clinton would explore whether the United States can empower a positive transition in Burma [Myanmar's former name] and begin a new chapter between our two countries.

Obama and other senior administration officials have openly proclaimed since late 2011 that the U.S. considered China the main challenger to its status as the sole superpower. The Pentagon's latest war doctrine lays great emphasis on containing China in the Asia-Pacific region. Hillary Clinton's visit was widely interpreted in the American media as being part of the Obama administration's efforts to check the rising power of China in the region.

Hillary Clinton was soon followed by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France, Foreign Secretary William Hague of the United Kingdom, and Japan's Trade Minister Yukio Edano. The E.U. has lifted the travel sanction on senior Myanmarese officials. Until recently, only countries in the region such as China, India, Thailand and Singapore engaged meaningfully with the Myanmarese government.

The West, led by the U.S. had, on the other hand, imposed draconian economic sanctions on the country and also exerted pressure on India and the other countries to distance themselves from the military-led government. Hillary Clinton, before reaching Yangon, had said that developing countries should be smart shoppers and should be careful about taking assistance from countries that were more interested in extracting resources than in building capacity.

The U.S. Secretary of State had two well-publicised meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 soon after the country went to the polls supervised by the army. The election, though far from being free and fair, was the first to be held in 20 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi's party, which was banned from contesting two years ago, has since been allowed to participate in politics openly.

Under the 2008 Constitution, Parliament has very little power. The military continues to have a constitutional veto on decisions made by Parliament or the President. The military is guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Suu Kyi's decision to contest a parliamentary byelection in April is being viewed as a tacit endorsement of the 2008 Constitution. Many in her own party have criticised her decision.

Hillary Clinton harped on America's abiding support for the struggle for democracy and said that she was visiting the country to gauge the true intentions of the junta. After meeting President Thein Sein in the new administrative capital, Nay Pyi Taw, Hillary Clinton welcomed the new steps taken by his government. She had come with a list of demands, which included freeing of political prisoners and cessation of hostilities with rebellious ethnic groups such as the Karens and the Kachins. Hundreds of political prisoners, including a few high-profile ones, have since been freed. A ceasefire agreement was reached with the Karen National Union (KNU) in January. The Karen insurgency has gone on for more than 60 years. The government has ordered a general ceasefire. Ethnic minorities make up around 40 per cent of Myanmar's population.

Hillary Clinton's visit took place just after the military government had cancelled a multi-billion-dollar deal with China to build a hydroelectric project. The Myitsone dam was to be built on the Irrawaddy river. The government, while announcing its decision to cancel the project, said the construction of the dam would go against the will of the people.

THE IRRAWADDY RIVER in Kachin State, northern Myanmar, where the Myanmar-China Myitsone hydroelectric project was to come up. Myanmar has decided to cancel the project.-KHIN MAUNG WIN/AP

The proposed dam had come under criticism from environmental groups and there were a few scattered demonstrations against it. The $3.6 billion dam, China's biggest single investment in the country, was supposed to be part of a network of seven dams that would provide power for industry in southern China.

China is involved in other important energy-related projects too. China's National Petroleum Corporation is building a gas and petroleum pipeline from Myanmar's southern coast into China, bypassing potential choke points such as the Malacca Strait where the U.S. Navy has a strong presence. Interestingly, gas from the immense Shwe reserves off the coast of the Arakan State was first offered to India by the Myanmarese authorities. India dragged its feet on the offer and China came into the picture. China invested $11 billion in Myanmar in 2010-11 alone.

The decision to cancel the dam project was made during the visit of Myanmarese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin to Washington in September. He is the first senior official to visit Washington since the military junta took power.

Western aid

Hillary Clinton, during her visit, indicated that Washington would no longer stand in the way of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank loans to Myanmar. The U.S. itself has loosened its purse strings. American officials have started visiting the country in droves to earmark aid for development projects. American business views resources-rich Myanmar as the new frontier.

The military government has already offered generous terms for Western investors and has advertised the country as the most attractive in the region. The military government is all set to approve a law that gives investors tax exemption up to eight years. Myanmarese workers are among the lowest paid in the region and trade union activity is severely curtailed by the government.

Thein Sein declared Hillary Clinton's visit a historic milestone and expressed the hope that it would open a new chapter in relations between the two countries. Nay Zin Latt, a senior political adviser to the Myanmarese President, told Time magazine, that because of the sanctions, the country had no option but to take what China had to offer. He said that if the sanctions were lifted, it will be better for everyone in Myanmar.

PRO-DEMOCRACY LEADER AUNG San Suu Kyi after receiving France's highest award, The Legion of Honour, from French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe at the French embassy in Yangon on January 15.-SOE ZEYA TUN /REUTERS

Ko Ko Hliang, another senior adviser to the President, was candid enough to admit that the events of the Arab Spring had influenced the government's decision to cosy up to Washington. The military men currently in power are well aware that they will not be able to crush popular revolts as easily as in the past. They also know about the West's propensity to use street protests to intervene militarily and bring about regime change.

Suu Kyi warned against an Arab Spring in the country and called for change through peaceful means. She virtually rubber-stamped the military's transition plan to democracy when she gave the go-ahead for the re-registration of the NLD. According to reports in the Western media, the Obama administration had made Suu Kyi's release the first precondition for the lifting of sanctions and the eventual normalisation of relations.

A new chapter seems to have indeed opened up in U.S.-Myanmar relations. In January, Washington announced that it was sending an ambassador after a gap of 10 years. Since Hillary Clinton's visit, three separate delegations of U.S. officials have visited the country.

Reports from Washington in the second week of February said Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, would visit Myanmar later this year.

American officials in Bangkok, where the CIA Director went on an official visit recently, told the media that Petraeus would be making the visit on the instruction of the Secretary of State. A trip by Petraeus is an indication that the two countries are heading for greater cooperation in security-related issues. The two countries had cooperated in the 1980s when the military was combating various insurgencies, including one led by the Burmese Communist Party, which at the time had the tacit support of China.

The Myanmarese military and political establishments have historically tried to remain equidistant from China and India. Now, with China outpacing India economically, sections of the Myanmarese elite could have come to the conclusion that the U.S. would be a better bet to counterbalance the growing Chinese influence.

Washington, too, has tried to cash in on India's apprehensions about China's growing clout in Myanmar. Suu Kyi, from available indications, has become particularly close to the West in recent years.

It is no secret that she was upset with New Delhi after the latter established close relations with the junta in the mid-1990s. New Delhi had openly stated that the sanctions were counterproductive. The two countries have also established strong security links, cooperating closely in anti-insurgency operations along the 1,640-km-long unfenced border.

In July 2010, during the visit of President Than Shwe to India, the two countries signed a mutual legal assistance agreement that provides for the repatriation of Indian insurgents held in Myanmar.

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