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Only time will tell for Myanmar

By Roberto Herrera-Lim

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Myanmar this week was a public relations coup for that regime and for Western advocates of engagement. The New York Times featured a photo of Clinton smiling with freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, both clad in white. But while the visit and Myanmar's incremental reforms have ignited hopes that relations between that nation and the West could thaw considerably in the near term, some skepticism is appropriate regarding how quickly things will change. The regime will continue balancing reform with control, suggesting that progress will be slow and gradual. That will not stop the U.S. from offering diplomatic and administrative concessions to the new Burmese government, but in the absence of major reforms in the near term, Washington will be too consumed by other issues to take up what would be a contentious congressional debate on sanctions.

Myanmar's reform process began sometime in 2007 or 2008, possibly in the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks. Barack Obama's presidential win in late 2008 secured buy-in for that process within the military junta; the expectation was that the Obama administration would be more open to dialogue and engagement than previous U.S. administrations had been. Since then, President Thein Sein's government has begun implementing some of the country's most serious political reforms in a decade. It has allowed more open discussion of political and economic reform, suspended construction of a Chinese-funded dam due to the population's concerns about its environmental side effects, and -- most prominently -- freed Suu Kyi.

But only guarded optimism is warranted. First, the reforms being implemented are calculated moves, rather than signs of any wholesale embrace of democracy. The government -- which includes proxies of the former junta -- is unlikely to adopt reform for reform's sake, but instead as a means of soothing internal tensions and reducing external threats to the military. As such, the carefully planned changes can be read as a way for the government to maintain control and protect the aging, retired members of the former junta.

Second, Myanmar has a history of stalling or reversing reforms. In 2004, political infighting led to the ousting of the relatively reformist prime minister Khin Nyunt and stalled the "roadmap to democracy" with which Myanmar had hoped to establish credibility with Washington. (This setback followed the 2003 attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's convoy by armed groups suspected of acting on behalf of hardline military factions.) And several times -- in 1992, 2004, and 2005 -- former junta leader Than Shwe released political prisoners but followed up with nothing else. Similarly halting reform won't be enough for Washington, which will likely insist on major moves such as the release of most political prisoners, an end to the persecution of minorities, and free and fair elections in 2015 before lifting sanctions. While this may happen, it will take some time.

In the meantime, incremental reforms could keep improving the West's informal engagement, which might in turn reinforce the regime's good behavior. Suu Kyi, who was the most visible sign of the country's slide into authoritarian rule, will be a critical determinant of this diplomatic trajectory. Indeed, there will be no more important signals for Washington than those coming from her about the pace of Burmese reform and whether or not the time is right to lift sanctions.

Roberto Herrera-Lim is a director in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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