The warming trend in US-Myanmar relations witnessed in 2012 represents the culmination of years of diplomatic manoeuvring. The two countries had been at loggerheads ever since Washington downgraded its representation in Myanmar from ambassador to chargé d'affaires in the bloody aftermath of 1988 democracy uprising and the then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council military government's refusal to acknowledge the 1990 general election results won by the pro-democracy opposition.
Last year's rapprochement, which saw Washington roll back economic and financial sanctions, was also a result of the US government's dual-track policy, which has made strategic use of carrots and sticks.
As a condition for normalizing bilateral relations, Washington made some fundamental demands, including: the release of all political prisoners (more than 2,000 held in different prisons across Myanmar in the beginning of 2012), inclusive dialogue with opposition parties and ethnic minorities, adherence to the United Nations' non-proliferation agreements on nuclear weapons and an end to any illicit cooperation with North Korea, greater accountability on human-rights issues, and a cessation of violence against ethnic minorities. The US also called for free and fair by-elections - held last April, polls that allowed pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to assume a seat in parliament.
First, a total of 651 political prisoners were either released or offered a presidential pardon by the government in January 2012. Those released included prominent political prisoners, including leaders of the 1988 democracy uprising, ex-military intelligence chief and deposed prime minister General Khin Nyunt, and ethnic Shan leaders Hkun Htun Oo and Sai Nyunt Lwin, who were sentenced respectively to 93- and 85-year prison sentences.
Second, President Thein Sein's government signed ceasefire agreements with several armed ethnic groups, including the Arakan Liberation Party, Chin National Front, Karenni National Progressive Party, Karen National Union, Karen Peace Council, National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang, New Mon State Party, Pa-O National Liberation Army, and Shan State Army-North.
Third, the government held internationally lauded by-elections where the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), previously banned for its boycott of the 2010 general elections, won 43 of the 45 seats it contested. The participation of the NLD and other political parties associated with ethnic minority groups boosted Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government's claim to legitimacy and the credibility of its seven-step "roadmap" toward democracy that initially began in 2003.
In return, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell was confirmed as the new US ambassador in late June, representing a symbolic upgrade of diplomatic relations. US investment sanctions were suspended the next month, followed by the removal of a long-standing import ban on goods produced in Myanmar in September. The suspension of investment sanctions enabled US companies and multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to re-establish links with the capital-starved country.
The US made three important achievements through its engagement initiatives, namely: the triumph of diplomacy over isolation; official assurances that Myanmar is not engaged in any illicit engagement with North Korea on nuclear programs; and a firmer footing for its presence in Southeast Asia amid rising competition with China for regional influence.
Improved relations enabled the US government to re-establish the US Agency for International Development mission to Myanmar, lend support for a normal UN Development Program country program and facilitate travel to the US for select Myanmar officials and parliamentarians.
They also paved the way for the US and Myanmar to cooperate on the recovery of Americans missing in action or held as prisoners of war during World War II, a move seen by some as a first step towards normalized military-to-military relations.
Through improved bilateral relations with the US, Thein Sein's government achieved its long-sought goal of legitimacy in the international community. Until the April by-elections, the US and other Western nations still considered the results of the 2010 general elections, widely decried as rigged in favor of pro-military candidates, as unrepresentative of the Myanmar people. The suspension of sanctions in both the US and European Union thus represented a significant diplomatic turn for Myanmar.
The positive diplomacy culminated in US President Barack Obama's visit to Myanmar in November, the first by a sitting US president. The historic visit was however criticized by several rights groups that argued it was premature to reward Thein Sein's government with such a high-profile visit when violence still continued in Kachin and Rakhine states and hundreds of political prisoners remained behind bars. Officials in Washington said Obama's visit was to acknowledge democratic reforms and to encourage further reforms.
While both governments should be commended for taking bold steps to improve bilateral ties, many important questions remain. The primary concern now is whether political gestures from Myanmar's government will genuinely address lingering ethnic minority problems, which remain at the core of decades-old conflicts in the country.
Will Thein Sein's government be able to broker a ceasefire agreement with insurgent Kachins and will ceasefire agreements already signed with various other armed ethnic groups lead to lasting peace and genuine autonomy? Will the 2008 constitution, which currently guarantees 25% of seats in parliament for military appointees, be amended in a way that removes the inherent role of the military in politics? Will all remaining political prisoners be released unconditionally?
There is still uncertainty about how the US will respond if these expectations go unfulfilled in the year ahead. To be sure, 2012 was a significant year in terms of diplomatic rapprochement between the US and Myanmar. The longevity and durability of these improved bilateral relations, however, will be contingent upon whether Myanmar's democratic transition progresses and deepens in a meaningful way.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/ Myanmar. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally. His latest article entitled "US-Burma Relations: Change of Politics under Bush and Obama Administrations" is scheduled for publication in Strategic Analysis by Routledge in March 2013.
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