BANKOK, THAILAND — One day after the highest-level US diplomatic visit to Burma since 1995, a US official downplayed the chances that the Obama administration’s policy of “pragmatic engagement” with the regime will quickly lead to democratic reform or an improved human rights record.
The United States wants to see “real progress” in Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar, before it extends bilateral ties with the country’s military junta, Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel said in Bangkok on Thursday.
His cautious perspective, shared at a public forum, reflects that of exiled pro-democracy activists who say that while the junta may have some interest in warming ties, it has a history of stringing visiting Western diplomats along without changing course. Since the 1990s, successive United Nations special envoys have returned empty-handed and been snubbed by junta leaders.
Pressed on what would constitute progress, Mr. Marciel declined to set benchmarks. He said the international community wants the release of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners so that they could campaign in elections scheduled for next year.
“There is an opportunity for progress … the elections could be an opportunity. But they will only be an opportunity if they’re done right,” said Marciel, who met with Ms. Suu Kyi during the visit. “I don’t see how there can be credible elections that bring legitimacy without inclusive participation, and I don’t see how this can happen without a dialogue” among the political players.
The two-day diplomatic meeting between the US and Burma marks the end of a Bush administration policy of isolating the regime and seeking to corral Asian powers into punishing it.
US diplomats say that pressure is still needed, including from trading partners like Thailand and China, if there is to be a political thaw. Sanctions on Burma are a “useful tool” and will remain in place, Marciel said. They include a freeze on US investments and visa bans on government leaders and their families and business associates.
The shift in policy, however, signals the Obama administration’s recognition that isolation hasn’t changed the behavior of the junta, which took power in 1988 and has ruthlessly repressed internal criticism and waged abusive campaigns against ethnic minorities.
Potential areas for compromise
During their visit, Marciel and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell met senior government officials but not the junta’s supreme leader, General Than Shwe. Many experts on Burma say Than Shwe is strongly opposed to making any concessions to Suu Kyi, whose party won the country’s 1990 elections. Those results were annuled by the junta and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.
Under Burma’s 2007 constitution, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy opposed, one-quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for military officials. Other clauses empower the military to take charge in case of threats to national security in a country that is battling decades-old ethnic insurgencies.
Analysts say Burma’s military, the largest in Southeast Asia, remains the key to any transition to some form of democratic rule. “They might be willing to compromise on some issues. Whether they’re willing to compromise on political issues is a huge question,” says Thant Myint-U, an author on Burmese history and a former UN official.
Bilateral issues that might be finessed include efforts to curb Burma’s illegal drugs production and a stop to any illicit dealings with nuclear-armed North Korea. But it will be much harder to find common ground on what constitutes free and fair elections, says Myint-U.
Marciel said the US had raised the issue of nuclear proliferation with Burmese officials, but offered no details. He said US humanitarian aid to Burma was also on the agenda and that the US wanted to continue this assistance, provided it was reaching those in need.
Why Burma might cooperate
Marciel said he wouldn’t speculate on why Burma wanted to improve ties with the US. He said the two sides had agreed to appoint envoys and would likely meet next week on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore, which President Obama is attending.
Khin Ohmar, a Thai-based activist at the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said the regime was increasingly irked by the impact of US sanctions and also had concerns over rising Chinese influence in Burma.
“It’s clear, they want to see sanctions lifted,” she says. The most egregious, from the junta’s perspective, are measures that forbid US banks from dealing with Burma and visa bans on leaders and family members, she says.
By reaching out to the US, the government also wants to balance its dependence on China, which has invested heavily in Burma’s natural resources and become its main arms supplier. This lopsided relationship and tensions over China’s support for border rebels is pushing nationalist generals to rekindle US ties, says Ms. Ohmar.