Myanmar: Coming in from the cold?Posted: 10/01/2012
Substantial political and economic reforms (examined in a recent IISS Strategic Comment) followed the transfer of power from the military junta to a civilian government in March 2011. Crucially, the reforms have won the support of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s highly respected opposition leader. Her party, the National League for Democracy, formally registered with the authorities last month after boycotting the 2010 elections because of electoral laws that prevented her from taking part. Parliamentary by-elections are expected to be held in April.
But there remain some significant hurdles for Myanmar as it seeks to come in from the cold. It faces lingering questions over its chequered human-rights record: both Hague and Clinton emphasised that the release of political prisoners and dialogue with dissident ethnic minorities are prerequisites to any relaxation of sanctions.
Clinton also demanded that Myanmar sever all ties with North Korea, from which it is suspected of having acquired information on ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear technology.
Myanmar’s potential democratisation is also seen by the West as an opportunity to draw the country out of China’s economic and political orbit. China has been Myanmar’s main military and economic backer since the introduction of Western sanctions in the 1990s and holds a great deal of influence in the country.
However, the recent decision by Myanmar’s President Thein Sein to suspend construction of a China-backed dam project was interpreted by many as a sign that the country’s leadership is keen to reduce China’s dominance.
But even if this is the case, Myanmar is unlikely to accept an increased level of Western dominance as a substitute for that of China. Clinton’s visit was noticeably overshadowed by the simultaneous visit by the prime minister of Belarus.
Myanmar has been pursuing closer ties with its neighbours, including India and other countries in Southeast Asia. Its determination to chair the Association of South East Asian Nations in 2014 (which it was ultimately awarded last November) was a major motivation for the reform process.
Nonetheless, the timing of Myanmar’s reforms comes at a very opportune moment for the US. It has been encouraging the growth of ties across Southeast Asia as a counter-balance to the rise of China. Though its economy is weak, Myanmar’s strategic position and rich resources make it a potentially valuable partner.
Ultimately, however, the West will act with caution. The pace of reform has surprised the world and inevitably aroused some suspicion as to how genuine it is. Australia has demonstrated Western willingness to back rhetoric with action, but the further relaxation of sanctions will be limited until Myanmar’s elites demonstrate that the move towards democracy is for real.