Building Ties with Myanmar’s New DemocracyMaybe if “Myanmar (and also Burma)” was as catchy as “Istanbul (not Comstantanople)” more Americans would understand that they’re actually the same place. Cub Pub editorialist extraordinaire Ben Rimland gives us an update on their recent democratic developments.
The United States is emerging from more than a decade of war, with a foreign policy that is arguably as bruised and battered as it has ever been since the end of the Cold War. With hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives spent on curtailing terrorism, the American state department was certainly ready for a pronounced switch in American policy focus. The recent “pivot” towards Southeast Asia, then, provided an opportunity for the U.S. to simultaneously confront another rising threat (China) as well as press the “reset” button after a decade of being largely locked into the Middle East.
Myanmar’s recent period of transition, then, could not have come at a better time. With the country’s president, U Thein Sein, a former general, the country has embarked on a path of reform. The formerly outlawed National League for Democracy now has seats in the country’s parliament, media censorship has largely ceased and the country’s most famous dissident, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and is now a member of parliament. Suu Kyi has become a Nelson Mandela-like figure for Myanmar, with rising international influence as evidenced by her highly publicized meeting with Hillary Clinton in late 2011.
However, this emergence is not invulnerable to so-called “backsliding,” most notably the government’s continued campaign against the Kachin minority group currently fighting a rebellion against the central government. Many human rights NGOs and the United Nations have condemned the continuing assault, issuing statements expressing deep concern at the government’s supposed usage of white phosphorous incendiaries against civilian populations.
Notable, however, is the deafening, and in my opinion justified, silence of the American government on the issue of the Kachin rebels. Given the numerous diplomatic overtures made by the Americans to Myanmar, a sudden freezing of ties or suspension of new aid would represent a serious blow to American efforts in the region. The keystone of this silence is America’s effort to counterbalance Chinese influence, and Myanmar’s necessity in doing so. The threat of Chinese military action over disputed islands in the South China Sea, along with the development of a robust Chinese blue-water navy presence in the area has led a mötley crew of nations to band together with the United States, from transitional states like Vietnam and Myanmar to full fledged economies like Japan and South Korea.
Myanmar’s emergence as a democracy, and its ascendance to the American diplomatic umbrella, represents a major turnaround for the United States. Along with Vietnam, the United States has robust relationships with two countries that historically should be closely allied with China. With tensions between China and America’s allies in the region increasing (seen most recently with a Chinese ship locking on to a Japanese cutter), the cultivation of new diplomatic ties and markets in the region is crucial to maintaining American influence and undercutting that of China’s. And so, doing my best to not open up a can of worms, we have a classic “interests versus values” question. With the Myanmar government on the brink of victory against the rebels and the Chinese introducing more complex weapons systems seemingly on a weekly basis, the United States cannot afford to sacrifice its interests to give up such a valuable diplomatic prize.