U.S. Still Dreams of Burma : Can It Wake Up to Myanmar?

The predominant image of Myanmar, formerly Burma, as portrayed in the U.S. media is one of an authoritarian government with multiple human rights violations. Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is often the champion of the more democratic movement within the country. A political cartoon in the New York Times in 2013 showing Burmese President Thein Sein trying to wash his shirt stained with the words ‘ethnic violence’ while using detergent labeled “Myanmar Reforms” is a fair representation of this. However, the reality of Myanmar, still identified as one of the poorest countries in the world, is much more complicated than simply that of human rights abuses. It is also the story of how the U.S. fed into its immediate situation and can influence its future. The future of U.S. - Myanmar relations, then, depends on both how Myanmar fosters its relationship with its international community and how it handles domestic policies, in addition to if and how the U.S. decides to nudge Myanmar to create more reforms.


The U.S.’ political situation with Myanmar has been continuously changing, even within the past few weeks. Just last week Win Aung, a ‘crony’ blacklisted by the U.S. with economic restrictions, had been removed from the list. This has raised the question of the future relationship between the two countries, as economic sanctions have been the primary way in which the U.S. has reacted to Myanmar historically in hopes of punishing Myanmar for its human rights violations.


To put things into perspective, the British colonized Myanmar in 1852 and annexed it to British India in hopes of creating a direct trade route to China. During World War II, Myanmar’s geographical location between China and India became that of strategic importance due to the Japanese invasion, providing the location from which the Allied Powers strategized to push back the Japanese. Following World War II, the British granted Myanmar independence, and within 20 years civil war broke out, which was ended by General Ne Win under a socialist regime. This led Myanmar into a period of isolationism and economic decline. In 1988, after a failed uprising in which thousands of protesters were killed, the regime re-named itself the ‘State Law and Order Restoration Council’ (SLORC), which threw out the constitution and declared itself the ruling junta of the country. This regime began to move toward fixing the economy by shifting towards a free-market system.


It was around this time, in 1990, that the junta decided to have a multi-party election, only to seize control once more when the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide, showing the international community that Myanmar was indeed run by the military in practice. This held major economic implications, as the West began to call for a boycott of business dealings with Myanmar with the notion that economic embargos would support the democratic movement and push the generals towards regime change. However, reality was not that simple.


Renowned scholar of Myanmar Professor David Steinberg commented before the 2012 U.S. subcommittee hearing on U.S. policy on Myanmar that “[the] goal [of economic sanctions] was regime change—honoring the results of the May 1990 elections that were swept by the opposition NLD…In effect, the U.S. position to the junta was: get out of power and then we will talk to you. This was, I submit, patently absurd.”


The call for boycotts eventually led to broad economic sanctions against the entire country and top officials, as well as a ban on any form of investment there. These sanctions, although put in place to punish the regime for its human rights abuse, hurt the Burmese people more than it did those at the top.


“Burmese people suffered many impacts of Western economic sanctions,” said Khine Maung Yi, a Burmese Upper House parliamentarian, “Though the U.S. targeted cronies, the real impact was felt by the people.”

More than that, the Western-imposed economic sanctions is what led Myanmar to have such an intertwined relationship with China, leading to the U.S. currently scrambling to try and improve relations with Myanmar. In the midst of a Western refusal to give unconditional economic aid and the continual cries for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, China has emerged as a seemingly supportive ally of Myanmar. China has provided financial aid, as well as political aid, to Myanmar since the early ‘90s. Back in 2007, when the U.S. proposed a UN resolution that demanded that Myanmar stop its oppressive rule and bring an end to its violations of human rights, China was one of the countries that, as a permanent member of the Council, vetoed the resolution.


This situation was a complete 180 degree turn from the Cold War era. Back in the late 60s and 70s, the U.S. was on better terms with Myanmar than China. At the time, China supported a communist insurgency in Myanmar, leading to violence and poor relations between the two neighboring countries. Myanmar remains wary of China in that it recognizes China to be a very strong nation whose internal political problems have often spilled over the border.

However, in spite of this, and even as the Burmese government and people understand Chinese aid as only a temporary fix, Myanmar accepted it in order to better its own economy, as most outside aid had ground to a halt.


For China, the motivation behind maintaining positive relations with Myanmar is largely economic. One of its contemporary issues today is the economic disparity between Western and Eastern China, which comes out of the fact that Eastern China has more access to trade through the sea. In order to bridge this gap, it is advantageous for China to maintain a good relationship with Myanmar, which can provide a way for the Western part of China to trade through the Bay of Bengal. By having Myanmar’s economic infrastructure stabilized, China could stand to benefit greatly from having a market where its citizens could invest and trade. There is also an ethnic motivation, as the Kokang rebels in Myanmar fighting the Burmese army are ethnically Chinese.


This complicates U.S. – Myanmar relations. The international relationship between China with Myanmar is currently so intertwined that it makes it difficult for the U.S. to decide. Whatever the U.S. decides to do, it will affect China as well, and so that decision will also be reliant on how the U.S. decides to pursue its Chinese foreign policy. And there are also other countries within this drama involving Myanmar. For example, Japan has been also been investing heavily in Myanmar for economic purposes.


In more recent years, U.S. – Myanmar relations have been doing better, albeit they are still rocky. In 2010 the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the main political party backed by the military junta, won in the first election to have occurred in 20 years. Although this election was generally decried as fraudulent and unreliable, the junta has called it a move toward a civilian government. As it currently stands in the 2008 Burmese constitution, 25% of seats in the parliament is reserved for the military, and those in religious orders and with criminal convictions are unable to stand for election, effectively ruling out those against the current regime. A week after elections, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had not been allowed to take part, was released from house arrest.


When Thein Sein became president of Myanmar in 2011 of the nominally civilian government, the international community was surprised by his decisions to release political prisoners, pass labor laws allowing unions, and suspend the controversial Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam, which was done on the basis that “it was contrary to the will of the people”. As a government that has all but ignored the protests of these people, this was seen as an almost miraculous step towards reform. The U.S., in response, started to consider improving relations with Myanmar.


In 2012 Derek J Mitchell was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar since 1990, and some of the non-military sanctions against Myanmar were lifted, allowing for American investment in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was also elected into the parliament along with 42 members of the NLD.


However, even with these reforms Myanmar’s human rights woes are far from over. The situation of human rights violations has been worsening in the border between China and Myanmar, where a host of ethnic minorities live. Starting from 2012, violence has been breaking out between groups, especially between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, with the government doing little to stop it. This, in addition to the news in 2014 that Myanmar has started to engage in talks with North Korea, has led to the U.S. to question whether the reforms that have happened in Myanmar are enough, and what course the U.S. should take in order to address Myanmar’s human rights violations.


In addition to Myanmar’s human rights violations, however, the U.S. will also need to assess its next course of action with respect to Myanmar in relation to China. The Wall Street Journal in November 2014, when President Obama visited Myanmar, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International studies in Washington said that "Washington recognizes that part of the reason the junta launched reforms was to get Myanmar some breathing room in its relations with China".


The last thing that Myanmar wants in its relationship with China is to become its client state, subordinate to it. In Thant Myint-u’s 2011 book Where China Meets India: Myanmar and the New Crossroads of Asia, a Burmese officer was quoted as saying, “We know that India can’t really balance China for us….We would like better relations with the Americans, but as long as they are only interested in ‘regime change’ [term in English], there’s really nothing to talk about.”


All of these have funneled into the current landscape of U.S. foreign relations with Myanmar, but put very generally the future of U.S. – Myanmar relations rests on two factors, both of which are dependant on a variety of different variables. The first would be how the Burmese government decides to conduct relations internationally, especially with those in its immediate regions, as well as its domestic policies. The second factor is whether or not the U.S. decides continue to push its agenda in the region, as well as how it chooses to pursue it in response to the actions of the Burmese government.


Setting aside the Burmese government, which is unpredictable as it is still run largely by military rule, the ways in which the U.S. may react to Myanmar is a little more predictable. U.S. interests currently lies in expanding democracy and its own economic situation, while at the same time curbing China’s growing influence. Looking at past precedence on U.S. foreign policy, it is unlikely that the U.S. will budge from its current position of promoting democracy within Myanmar. This promotion of democracy is currently being done through the suggestion of reform as opposed to immediate regime change. The question, then, is which course of action the U.S. decides to promote these reforms.


The Obama administration’s policy since 2012 toward Myanmar has been that of “action-to-action”, in which the U.S. eases sanctions on Myanmar as Myanmar moves towards further reforms that allow for citizen participation. However, there recently have been voices saying that perhaps the easing sanctions have gone too far and are now being administered on the basis of false hope rather than concrete evidence of reforms. In the 2013 U.S. subcommittee on U.S. policy on Myanmar, the general sentiment seems to be that “the U.S. is throwing away what may be, since most sanctions have been lifted, its last point of leverage that could help foster further reforms in Myanmar.”


Given the U.S.’s history of economic sanction towards Myanmar, however, it is questionable how effective U.S. economic sanctions have been in both fostering change in Myanmar, as well as furthering U.S. interests. With the post-1988 economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. resulting in a loss of U.S. influence in the region, doing a disservice to U.S. interests by increasing China’s influence, and if nothing else, harming the living conditions of the very people the U.S. has extolled to be of help to.


There was even an argument for engaging with Myanmar for trade in order to promote democratic values. “The presence of U.S. companies abroad helps to promote the values we as a nation espouse, including human rights and fair labor standards” said the President of the U.S. – ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Countries) Business Council in 1996.  


Even with improved relations since 2011, going back to economic reforms in hopes of pushing Myanmar for reform may be a step back towards the Clinton and Bush eras, when U.S. - Myanmar relations were in shambles.


A prime example of the move in this direction is a recent bill called the Myanmar Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2014 currently in the House that prohibits Congress from providing any “security assistance” in the 2015-16 fiscal year to Myanmar unless Myanmar takes more concrete steps towards democracy. Security assistance includes military assistance, education and training, peacekeeping operations, as well as loans in regard to weaponry. According to the bill, one of the many stipulations of reform towards democracy is the Burmese government “amend[ing] its constitution and laws to ensure civilian control of the military and implemented reforms”.


However, as Professor David Steinberg put it in his opinion of the bill, “The military has long explicitly articulated that it has no trust in the civilian sector, because of past civilian incompetence and corruption in managing the state. That is beginning to change, but to expect immediate transformation of the Burmese civil-military situation to a western model is absurd […] This legislation indicates an arrogance of power, and ignores the highly nationalistic sentiments in that society. The United States needs to deal with Myanmar’s leaders with dignity, even if even if the United States regards many aspects of the present situation as unpleasant and some past policies under previous administrations as unconscionable.”


Steinberg’s comments are bolstered by the fact that the U.S. still formally refers to the country as Burma, as opposed to its internationally recognized name of Myanmar, sending the message of U.S. refusal to recognize the current regime as legitimate. Although some can argue that this is a way of showing U.S. disapproval of the Myanmar government’s human rights violations, it still remains problematic in that Myanmar, with its current government, is recognized as a sovereign state internationally.


As Steinberg also points out, the International Republican Institute has recently conducted a survey of public opinion in Myanmar, with favorable results towards the current situation showing that 88% of respondents thought the present Myanmar administration was moving in the right direction.


The 2014 U.S. government homepage on U.S. – Myanmar relations states that the U.S. is “commit[ed] to stand with the people of Myanmar during the long road of reform to help the country realize its full potential as a peaceful, just, prosperous and democratic society”. In that regard, from the survey the Burmese people have given their opinion on the current state in Myanmar. The major factor complicating future relations between the U.S. and Myanmar, then, is whether the U.S., in the context of its interests, thinks that the current changes in Myanmar are occurring fast enough. From the current situation, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will give up on its dream of a democratic Myanmar in the very near future. Therefore, the way in which it decides to foster and maintain democracy will be the determinant in worsening or bettering future relations with Myanmar.



Yu Zin Htoon

St. Olaf College



Hikari Sugisaki

St. Olaf College


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