As US Warms Up to Burma, Burmese Respond in Kind

Obama in Burma
President Obama visiting Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon, the capital of Burma, on Nov. 19, 2012. PETE SOUZA/THE WHITE HOUSE

Burma’s major moves toward liberalization and release from the vise of its military grip signal huge strides toward democracy, yet nothing in this long-isolated, mineral-endowed country is assured.

Even as the nation branches out from its dependence on China and advances cordial relations with the United States — including a visit by President Thein Sein to Washington this week to meet with President Obama — reforms are slow and cautious and could slide back at any moment. Burma’s unofficial patron saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed from decades of house arrest in 2010 and is now a politician in Parliament, raising high hopes for normalcy. But these steps are tenuous.

This dual mix of optimism and reservation regarding Burma was the resounding message echoed by a trio of experts who recently shared their knowledge and impressions to a full audience at the US mission to the United Nations in New York.

The May 15 evening program was sponsored by the US mission and the Foreign Policy Association, a 95-year-old nonprofit group based in New York. The three panelists were moderated by Barbara Crossette, who traveled to Burma last fall and wrote the Burma chapter for the association’s Great Decisions book series (and is a PassBlue contributor and the UN correspondent for The Nation).

The speakers were W. Patrick Murphy, a special representative and policy coordinator for Burma in the US State Department; Maureen Aung-Thwin, a Burmese-born director of the Burma Project-Southeast Asia Initiative at the Open Society Foundations; and Frances Zwenig, president of the US-Asean Business Council Institute. A short film, “The Generals and the Democrat: Burma in Transition,” produced for the Great Decisions series on PBS, was also shown.

The discussions were lively and devoid of long-winded UN speeches, with each expert offering a different look at Burma, from economics to human rights to American government policy. (The US has refrained, for the most part, from calling the country Myanmar, the name the military bestowed decades ago.)  The speakers also expressed the frustrations and delights of Burma — its beauty and charm, religious solemnity and rampant poverty. It has virtually no infrastructure, electricity or banking system and the murderous ethnic tensions among Burman (the largest ethnic group), Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Rohingya, Chin, Kachin and other minorities is well documented. It is also stuck with punishing sanctions from the US.

None of these potentially crippling aspects, however, is stopping people inside the country and out, particularly in the US government, to talk excitedly about prosperity and freedom.

“Looking back, in a way it’s hard to imagine that we would be holding an event such as this now,” said Jeffrey De Laurentis, the US ambassador for special political affairs in the UN, introducing the event as he described the steep, fast changes in Burma in the last two years and how long the UN has been working for reforms there. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released; preliminary cease-fires with ethnic armies have been tentatively agreed on; and forced labor has been banned, De Laurentis said.

Maureen Aung-Thwin
Maureen Aung-Thwin of Open Society Foundations and its expert on Burma. SHAUL SCHWARZ/GETTY

As Murphy, also a State Department official, said, “It’s always very interesting in Burma.” Murphy has spent the last 20 years, off and on, living and working in the country. He noted that for the first time in 22 years, an American ambassador, Derek Mitchell, has been installed. Although changes in Burma are “not a revolution,” Murphy added, they resemble a “top-down” process, starting with Thein Sein’s  presidency since 2011.

The transformations are not only delivering results for Burmese in a “very, very nascent” fashion, but also creating enormous implications for the US, which Murphy said was focused on several positive shifts: Obama’s visit to Burma in November 2012; increased freedoms of association and press; the government’s commitments to nonproliferation, good governance and transparency; and Parliament’s new strengths.

The broad US sanctions regime, calibrated to different targets in Burma, will take time and effort to dismantle, while some will remain as an “insurance policy” to deal with any serious backsliding and a small number of “bad actors” still inside the country involved in the economy, the military and arms trading in North Korea. US waivers have lifted some sanction elements and, most notably, Murphy said, the 1996 US visa ban on Burmese citizens has ended, allowing more travel in both directions.

The US continues to be concerned about serious human rights abuses and repression and national reconciliation and peace talks among the dozens of ethnicities, and Murphy reiterated earlier requests by human rights groups and other that a UN office of the high commissioner for human rights be opened in Burma to work with the government, which has yet to happen.

“End conflicts, achieve peace, live in harmony” – a “big ask,” Murphy said of America’s hopes for Burma.

Zwenig, the trade expert, was heading to Burma right after the program, and her passion for the country, where she has been traveling for work for 20 years, has kept her alert to developments.

How much relevance does the US have in Burma?, Zwenig asked. The “sanctions overhang” creates enormous suffering just as the blanket embargo did in Vietnam, where she said she worked on normalization after the war. She has led American businesses for the US-Asean business council to Burma for trade and investment research, saying they were “irrationally exuberant” about commercial potential. The country has “incredible promise” – enormous resources (oil, gas, precious gems like rubies and sapphires, teak), vast territory and a large population (about 48 million) – but little human capacity, no rule of law and agriculture is in a shambles, among the glaring deficits. American companies do not do well in “cowboy economies,” Zwenig said, and Burma is a place where “who you know makes a difference.”

“You have to be in it for the long haul,” Zwenig said.

Crowds in Yangon, Burma, upon Obama's arrival
Crowds in Yangon, the capital, upon Obama's arrival. PETE SOUZA/THE WHITE HOUSE

Aung-Thwin was born in Burma but did not grow up there. She said that changes were happening so rapidly that the bureaucracy seems to be unable to keep up, leading her, she surmised, to be removed from the country’s black list. Open Society Foundations, whom Aung-Thwin works for, has been “fighting” with the government for years, she said, but the organization has set up an office in the capital, Yangon, and has access to the education and public health sectors to monitor human rights. Although exiles are returning and all major dissidents are back, some permanently, sectarian violence continues to damage the country’s reputation and stability.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s name came up throughout the program. Deemed a politician and a leading light for Burmese, she has not avoided criticism since her Parliamentary election, notably focused on her ineffectiveness in confronting the country’s racial clashes. (The US State Department just released a report saying that Muslims in Rakhine State, particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to be subjected to lethal violence and to experience severe forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination.)

Yet her saintliness prevails as her chances of being voted president in elections in 2015 are practically a given except for one technicality. She is barred from running for the office by the Constitution because her husband, Michael Aris, was not Burmese. (He was British and died in 1999.) So it will take a majority of the Parliament, a quarter of which is seated by the military, to change that rule.

Could it happen? As Aung-Thwin said, no one in the country can beat her in the race. “She is inspirational and appeals across the divides.”

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