Calling on the repair man

By Anita Yang

US President Barack Obama’s 90 minute meeting at the latest ASEAN summit in Singapore this month with the head of Myanmar’s government, General Thein Sein, broke a 44 year silence between the two sides. Hailed as a breakthrough, the meeting also coincided with an earlier visit by two US diplomats to Myanmar, one of the highest-level US visits to Myanmar in 14 years.

Obama’s tentative missive to the Myanmar government signaled the first time that a US president was willing to try a different form of diplomacy with Myanmar– one departing from earlier policies which staunchly denied any discussions with the regime on the grounds of Myanmar’s poor human rights record and suppression of democracy.

Yet, Obama’s willingness to try a softer approach towards the government is not a new one. Critics including previous US administrations have been vocal in pressuring ASEAN leaders such as Singapore, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand to apply more pressure on Myanmar, an ASEAN member. However, the members arguably have achieved more goodwill and influence by bringing the Myanmar government to the table for talks rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water as past US administrations have done.

While this initial step signals a willingness of Obama to change course from his predecessors, it is long overdue. But it is a positive and necessary step as Obama seeks to repair past policies that have done little to resolve the four decade stalemate of threats and economic sanctions which have largely been ineffective in influencing the Myanmar authorities that have been in power since 1962.

The Myanmar example also highlights a reality that the US is contending with: the rise of countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia as well as other regional blocks such as ASEAN who are increasingly influencing global politics and markets. The ability of the US to effectively use the kind of brashness and ‘thou shall not concede’ attitude that has come to characterize American diplomacy is shrinking in this new context. Iraq and Afghanistan serve as painful reminders that the days of using military might and justifying it on the grounds of a superior set of values and morality as a means of serving geo-political interests may be over.

Nor should the US approach be a hindrance or result in squandering a few more decades to resolve the Myanmar issue as it warily acknowledges China’s expanding influence in the region. In the past, by failing to strengthen its ties with ASEAN because of the Myanmar thorn, the US may have limited its own influence in the region. In comparison, China’s non-intervention in Myanmar’s “internal affairs” has enabled it to become the country’s second largest trading partners. To date, China’s trade with Myanmar has grown to USD2.6 billion last year, providing China with strategic access to expand its oil and gas pipelines in the region.

And it seems unlikely that the Myanmar government would change its current stance. The government will continue to remain in power despite plans for an election next year which is widely seen as a sham to solidify their authority. The real victims of this stalemate are the 47 million Myanmar people who continue to earn less than an annual capita of USD1800. In coming to a standstill, the US and other countries have created a road block for much needed aid in the country. It is estimated that many of those affected by the devastating 2008 cyclone which is estimated to have killed over 85,000 people in the country are still largely without basic services and support.

Thus the Obama administration should now take the time to learn from its Asian counterparts. To generalize, Asian diplomacy balances the ability to convey criticism of another state without appearing to insult it through a mix of incentives and behind closed-door conversations.

If Obama was to apply this approach to Myanmar for example, it may decide to ease its ongoing demand for the release of pro-democracy political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, which has become a major sticking point. Rather, Obama could first seek other avenues for agreement between the two countries such as the need for foreign aid which would go a long way in repairing the relationship.

Yet Obama’s constituents and the western media back home have been slow to understand these finer points. For example, after Obama and ASEAN leaders issued a joint statement calling for Myanmar to hold a free election next year, there was immediate criticism about their failure to mention the release of Suu Kyi.

It would be a shame if Obama like his predecessors continues to be tied to American nostalgia for days gone by. If he is to achieve his foreign policy goals, Obama will need to burst that bubble.

Anita Yang is Programme Manager at the Global Institute For Tomorrow.