A new, albeit ambiguous, chapter opens in US-Burma relations

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma opens a new chapter in US-Burma relations. Following a telephone conversation with the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his Asian trip, President Obama signaled a green light for Clinton’s to visit the isolated country. But the time may not yet be right to forge closer ties between the two countries.

It is too early to tell whether high-level US engagement will become a significant driving force for further reforms in the country. Although Obama acknowledged the “flickers of progress” in Burma, these could soon fade away. While the Thein Sein administration has made minimal and cautious reforms, the praise hailed by the Suu Kyi-led opposition and the external actors like ASEAN and the US have been dramatic and disproportionate.

Suu Kyi’s decision to re-register her National League for Democracy (NLD) for looming by-elections has meant the party will leave its stolen victory in the 1990 elections behind them and relinquish the plan of challenging the government on its legal status through the UN Human Rights Commission.

Meanwhile, human rights violations continue behind the flimsy reforms of the so-called civilian government. Up to 1,700 political prisoners remain incarcerated and the government still refers these prisoners as common criminals who violated the country’s laws, whose very existence ensures that political opponents are denied the freedoms to challenge the government. And despite peace talks with ethnic armed forces, history serves to dampen expectations. Gross violations of rights and freedoms against minorities remain a grave concern.

The whole mechanism of the old junta continues to operate in every single sector of the government. Cronyism is flourishing and deeply rooted corruption and rampant abuse of power remain untouched. The regime is simply waiting for substantial concessions and bargains from the pro-democracy opposition and the international community for its minimal and negligible reforms.

Suu Kyi, a principled non-violent campaigner for democracy, has firmly advocated for dialogue and reconciliation with one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Her support for the US dual-track policy of engagement and sanctions, and further engagement with the Burmese government, has encouraged Obama to send Secretary Clinton to Burma. It is also a move that sees the US attempting to re-exert its influence in the region and particularly in Burma, whose relations with its ally China have come under strain in recent months.

Despite this, however, the generals in Naypyidaw appear reluctant to get too close to the US. The recent visit of the Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, to Vietnam suggests that they prefer to deal with other rogue states in the region rather than becoming an American ally. Yet there is an understanding within the government that a degree of openness towards Washington’s approaches could hold some benefits.

By allowing limited freedoms and civil liberties to exist at least in name, the government has shown an eagerness to normalise its relations with the west. Consequently, the termination of sanctions and the likely volley of western investments will follow, and Burma’s cronies and the ruling elites will be rewarded. Until Suu Kyi expands her role and leads the way forward in the military-dominated parliament to meet the needs of the people, those stuck behind bars for their belief in a free Burma will continue to suffer, and the thousands of people who are yet to experience peace in their ethnic homelands will remain trapped by war.

The US should prepare to take stronger measures against the Burmese government if its pledges are not met with tangible results. Suu Kyi, who will no doubt take every opportunity available to her to better her country, and the US and other western democracies need to work harder to pull Burma away from the clutch of tyranny.

Zaw Nay Aung is director of the London-based Burma Independence Advocates.

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