Myanmar breakthrough: Does it validate Obama policy of engaging adversaries?

The US announced it was restoring diplomatic ties with Myanmar, and some US officials credited Obama's policy of engagement with helping to bring one of the world's pariah states in from the cold.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Blogger Nay Phone Latt, released from Pa-an prison, feeds cake to his blogger friends from the Myanmar Blogger Society at his home in Yangon on Saturday to celebrate his release. Myanmar freed at least 200 political prisoners on Friday in an amnesty that could embolden the opposition and put pressure on the West to lift sanctions on the country.

The United States restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar Friday, saying it was making good on a commitment to “meet action with action” as the long-isolated Southeast Asian country has moved rapidly on political and economic reforms.

Just hours after Myanmar’s new civilian government announced the release of hundreds of political prisoners, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US would exchange ambassadors with Myanmar, also known as Burma, for the first time in two decades.

The US announcement also followed Myanmar’s declaration of a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels, a sign of the new government’s recognition of Myanmar’s ethnic diversity. According to US diplomats, ethnic violence and repression may be the most difficult challenge the country faces.

The focus Friday was on Myanmar and the role US diplomacy has played in bringing one of the world’s pariah states in from the cold. But some administration officials were keen to depict the breakthrough as a success for President Obama’s policy of engaging America’s adversaries.

Mr. Obama came into office “committed to trying to engage in many parts of the world where we had frozen relations,” says a senior State Department official. “In this case … we’re seeing progress. In other cases,” the official adds, the US effort was “not reciprocated.”   

Secretary Clinton signaled a warming of relations with Myanmar, for decades ruled by a harsh military junta, with a groundbreaking visit at the end of last year. “As I said in December,” Clinton said at the State Department Friday, “the United States will meet action with action.” She added that a “lengthy process” lies ahead that will “depend on continuing progress and reform.”

At a briefing following Clinton’s announcement, a senior State Department official said the US will be watching a number of key indicators for sustained progress toward reform, including elections set for April 1 and government negotiations with ethnic rebels and other groups.

But the official said all indications were that the announced release of 651 political prisoners was genuine and, while it did not include all of the country’s political prisoners, did include a substantial number of high-profile dissidents, student leaders from past pro-democracy movements, and even some former military chiefs.

The government’s action constitutes “one of the largest releases of political prisoners in Asia’s history,” the official said.

In her announcement, Clinton said she would speak by telephone this weekend with the country’s president, Thein Sein, and with Nobel laureate and prominent pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, “to underscore our commitment to walk together with them on the path to reform.” Aung San Suu Kyi has already said her political party will participate in the April 1 elections.

The Obama administration portrays the breakthrough with Myanmar as a sign of its commitment to revitalizing and expanding US ties to Asia. That emphasis is most often interpreted as a desire to fortify America’s influence in a region dealing with a rising China.

But the Myanmar case also underscores how the US sees its role in enhancing the East Asia region’s security. The State Department is sending a team of security officials to Myanmar to discuss the government’s commitment to ending arms purchases from North Korea, as well as prospects for enhanced relations between the country and the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency.

The US wants Myanmar to cut its military ties to North Korea, and to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that would commit the country to transparency on any nuclear activities.

Myanmar has in the past purchased small arms but also missiles from North Korea, the senior State Department official said at the briefing, the latter in particular putting the country in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The official noted that Myanmar remains “among the most sanctioned countries in the world,” but that in the “action for action” spirit the US is committed to removing its sanctions and promoting the removal of international sanctions in return for Myanmar’s concrete steps on political reform and regional security.

Lifting sanctions won’t occur overnight, since in most cases congressional approval is necessary. But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the minority leader, offered his support for the administration’s move Friday – on the eve of a trip he is making to Myanmar.

“The Thein Sein government will need to do more to explain the military relationship with North Korea and hold free and fair elections,” Senator McConnell said in a statement,” adding that “restoration of more formal diplomatic ties” at this time appears to be “entirely appropriate.”

Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee and a leading advocate of US outreach to Burma, hailed the day’s developments as “historic steps,” saying “It is in our national interest and in the interest of regional stability to bring Burma back into the international community in a positive way.”

In a statement, he also called on the US to build on its efforts so far, saying “we should take advantage of all of the tools at our disposal to facilitate Burmese economic development, political reconciliation, and ultimately greater progress toward democratic governance.”

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