Monday, October 5, 2009

Thaw in US-Burma ties

By Chua Chin Hon
The Straits Times

The unexpected thaw in US-Burma ties in recent months has raised a host of intriguing questions.

The most obvious are perhaps the trickiest: Why do Burma's military rulers want to engage the Obama administration in dialogue, and why now? What do they hope to gain?

Diplomats familiar with the issue say it is futile to try to second-guess the thinking of the secretive military junta. Yet, the answers to these questions will shape the negotiation strategies of the United States.

At first sight, there does not seem to be any urgent or compelling reason for Burma's generals to engage their biggest critic, Washington. After all, they have successfully weathered all the criticisms and economic sanctions that the US and other Western countries have imposed since the 1990s.

And Burma's growing importance in providing resources and energy for regional powers like China and India will ensure that foreign investments continue to roll in. So why bother?

Experts who track Burma, however, say that it is wrong to assume that the junta is satisfied, or completely assured, by the status quo. They add that a combination of domestic and external factors probably prompted the generals to seek talks with Washington.

For starters, next year, Burma will hold its first election in two decades, a move widely seen as an attempt by the military to legitimise its rule. Much remains unclear about the participation of the opposition in the elections, and whether international election monitors would be admitted.

Even the date for the election has not been officially announced. But what would be abundantly clear to the junta is that any attempt to garner international recognition would be futile without some level of acceptance from the US, experts say.

"I do think that the (Burmese government) is very anxious to have international recognition and some sort of legitimacy," says Dr Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia scholar with the Singapore Management University (SMU).

"And when people talk about the issue of acceptance, they are really referring to this recognition from the US."

The question of whether bilateral talks - and election assistance should Burma request it - could lend legitimacy to the junta-run elections could become a political hot potato for the Obama administration, given the nature of US politics. Hence, US diplomats have hedged their recent contacts with Burmese officials with numerous caveats.

"We will continue to stress to the (Burmese) authorities the baseline conditions that we consider necessary for any credible electoral process," US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told a Senate hearing last Wednesday.

"They include the
release of political prisoners,
the ability of all stakeholders to stand for election,
eliminating restrictions on media, and
ensuring a free and open campaign."
Campbell met U Thaung, Burma's minister of science, technology and labour, in New York last week in what was termed the highest level contact between the two sides in nine years. The negotiators did not set a date for a second set of talks, but Campbell said he sensed from the Burmese officials "a very clear determination that dialogue was possible".

Beyond the search for international acceptance, experts say Burma's willingness to engage the US could also be prompted by the rapidly changing international environment, particularly since President Barack Obama came into office.

Obama's approach to foreign policy has been markedly different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who refused direct contact with countries deemed to be rogue regimes.

It would not have escaped the attention of Burma's military rulers that other countries on Washington's blacklist - Iran and North Korea - have all had increased contact with the new US administration lately. There is little strategic value in being the odd man out in what is already the small and unpopular club of rogue nations.

But the bigger strategic issue on Burma's radar is likely to be the growing ties between the US and China, experts say. Whereas it could play one against the other before, that is no longer a given, as the two global powers see a growing convergence in their interests.

And despite Burma's close economic ties with China, the relationship is not necessarily problem-free.

"On China, we have to remember that the present army leadership grew up fighting the Communist Party of Burma, a well-armed Chinese-supported insurgent force that once threatened huge parts of the eastern uplands," historian Thant Myint-U told Wednesday's Senate hearing.

"Many see their present dependence on China as an anomaly, a tactical move that needs correction."

With all these shifting plates in motion, Burma likely has to recalibrate its position.

Said Dr Welsh of SMU: "They have to find a new configuration...and dialogue is the first step in that process."

For the US, the impetus for the talks goes beyond its traditional concerns about human rights, civil society and the imprisonment of democracy-icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma's growing ties with North Korea and the uranium deposits in the central and northern parts of the country have raised fears that the junta will try to play a similar game of nuclear brinkmanship as Pyongyang has done since 2003.

So far, there has been no smoking gun evidence of Burma contemplating such a move. But that is not likely to assure Washington, which already has its hands full dealing with Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Said Campbell: "Let me be clear: we have decided to engage with (Burma) because we believe it is in our interest to do so."

Burma Newscasts - Thaw in US-Burma ties
5 October 2009

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