Saturday, November 14, 2009

US President Obama Sets New Myanmar Policy in Motion

President Obama's meeting with Southeast Asian leaders—including Myanmar's prime minister—on Sunday will reflect the new U.S. stance on countries with unsavory human rights practices: pursuing engagement rather than isolation. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained the change, acknowledging that sanctions without diplomacy had not accomplished U.S. policy goals in Myanmar, like swaying the military regime to free political prisoners and pursuing peace with ethnic minorities. She revealed the most novel aspects of the administration's new approach, however, at this week's APEC meetings in Singapore when she asked for help from China, India and Thailand—three of Myanmar's key economic partners—to pressure the military regime to allow free elections in 2010.
Countries with sanctions against Myanmar—including the U.S., EU, Canada and Australia—say that Myanmar’s investment and trade ties with China and other regional partners undermine the effectiveness of punitive trade restrictions. The construction of a multibillion dollar pipeline that will provide China with oil and natural gas and Myanmar's military regime with badly needed revenue stands to further minimize the sanctions' efficacy, and could also lead to further human rights violations through land confiscations or forced labor.
Instead of protesting the plan and other investment projects supporting Myanmar's ruling junta, however, the Obama administration has chosen to focus on the common goals of all of the key players in the region. Clinton told the APEC conference participants that fostering stability in the region is in all of their interests and argued that countries with investments in Myanmar would be best served if Myanmar moved toward democracy "and the kind of stability that democracy creates." With her statements and Obama's presence at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting this weekend, the administration is expressing interest in participating in a more cooperative approach to the region's affairs that acknowledges the varying priorities of the countries involved. Still, the U.S. and EU have pledged to keep sanctions in place until they see clear evidence of human rights progress, and regional economic partners of the resource-rich state have little motivation to curtail their business relations, so the measurable effects of the diplomatic shift stand to be limited.
Baby Steps, at Best
A departure from President George W. Bush's strategy of refusing to hold direct talks with Myanmar has been in the works since February, when Clinton called for a policy review. Obama's visit this weekend, which might include a one-on-one meeting with Myanmar's prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, will mark the highest-level meeting between the two countries since President Lyndon Johnson met with Prime Minister Ne Win in Washington in 1966. Though finding clear resolution in Myanmar will likely be an arduous process, there have been a few promising signs. The military regime allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to meet with Sen. James Webb of Virginia in August; then, last week, it let her leave the confines of her home and a nearby government guesthouse for the first time in years to meet with assistant secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and his deputy, Scot Marciel. In September, Sein became Myanmar's most senior official to address the UN General Assembly in 15 years. He called for increased aid after Cyclone Nargis and argued that sanctions against his country were "unjust" and "a form of violence."
Though Myanmar's junta and Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, who has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years, have praised the new U.S. policy, some are less supportive. Critics voice concern that U.S. engagement will legitimize the military regime and give the junta confidence to violate international human rights norms even more egregiously.The regime has shown no indication of any intention to implement democratic and electoral reforms before the 2010 elections or to release Suu Kyi, who was dealt another 18 months of house arrest in August after an uninvited American came to her home. The junta granted 7,000 prisoners amnesty in September, but human rights groups estimate that the regime still holds 2,200 political prisoners. Given that Myanmar's new constitution—approved in 2008 by a suspicion-inducing 92% of the electorate—includes provisions barring Suu Kyi from holding office and giving the military 25% of the parliamentary seats, it is unlikely that the 2010 elections will be a political watershed. Writing in the WSJ, Georgetown Associate Professor Michael J. Green, a senior advisor and Japan chair with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the junta has been behaving as badly as ever since the U.S. changed its tune: In early November, officials detained 50 students, journalists and political activists.
Balancing Powers
Clinton's statements at the APEC summit suggest the U.S. policy shift has broader and longer-term goals than pressuring Myanmar's military regime on human rights. Over the past decade, as Bush kept Myanmar at arm's length, Asian players were happy to step in and expand ties, and perhaps not only in the economic realm. After the U.S. Navy tracked a North Korean ship heading toward Myanmar in June, speculation that the ship may have been carrying weapons prompted fears of growing military ties between the two countries.
China and India, meanwhile, have pursued investment opportunities from Myanmar's wealth of natural gas, which currently supplies 20% of Thailand's power (as parts of Myanmar face daily outages). A pipeline project­­ underway will supply China with natural gas from off Myanmar's coast and more direct access to Middle Eastern and African oil, potentially broadening Myanmar’s power as a regional energy hub. Analysts estimate that over 30 years the project will provide Myanmar's government with at least US$1 billion in revenues, about one-third of the country's current FX reserves, the WSJ says. Daewoo and the China National Petroleum Corp. are two of the major participants in the project, in addition to Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise, Korea Gas Corp., Oil & Natural Gas Corp. of India and GAIL (India) Ltd. China, South Korea and Japan also have accrued political and economic leverage in the region through the ASEAN+3 group, the provision of aid and investment and the expansion of the Chiang Mai Initiative, a liquidity facility.
For many Asian countries, the potential gains from natural resources, tourism and related investment are considered more vital than the pat on the back they would earn from the U.S. and EU for condemning Myanmar's human rights violations. Though ASEAN says Myanmar's inclusion in the group has allowed it to influence the ruling junta—notably after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when ASEAN pushed Myanmar to allow the entry of aid workers—the ASEAN tag also has given member states something of an excuse to maintain trade and investment relations with their misbehaving neighbor. Though opinion on Myanmar varies within ASEAN, the veto of a single country can stall action, since the group moves only with consensus. At the ASEAN summit in October, the launch of the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, a key component of the charter the group signed in 2008, fizzled when Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Singapore refused to participate.
By joining the region's conversation, the Obama administration acknowledges the complexity of dealing with a country that has valuable natural resources, a strategically important location and a military regime that crushes dissent. The participation of Clinton and Obama at this week's meetings lends credibility to the president's statement at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July that "the pursuit of power among nations must no longer be seen as a zero-sum game." All the same, though diplomatically important, the administration's policy shift is unlikely to translate into significant economic rewiring—or free elections in Myanmar—anytime soon.

No comments: