When US President Lyndon B Johnson hosted General Ne Win at the White House in September 1966, Burma’s brief flirtation with parliamentary democracy was a receding memory. The country’s first military dictator had taken power in a coup four years earlier, deposing the government of U Nu and quickly threatening to “fight sword with sword and spear with spear” as he ordered troops to open fire on students protesting his ascendance to power.
Yet despite the provocations, Johnson had kind words for the general: transcripts from the meeting record the two wanting to “further development of the friendly [bilateral] relations”, with the US president supporting “the policy of peace and nonalignment” of the Ne Win regime. A decade earlier, Eisenhower had struck a similar tone with a visiting U Nu, with both agreeing on “a traditional friendship” and the “two fundamental goals [of] a peaceful world and a democratic way of life”.
The gulf between the principles and characteristics of the two Burmese governments mattered little in Washington, which coveted both with equal lust: at the time the influence of Mao’s China was threatening to sweep south across the Asia-Pacific, and accompanying the friendly gestures towards U Nu and Ne Win was the CIA’s transferral of enormous amounts of weaponry and intelligence to the Chinese nationalist army, the Kuomintang, as they launched attacks on Mao’s forces from bases in northeastern Burma. With the support for Ne Win’s regime, despite it already having a proven track record that sharply contradicted Johnson’s rhetoric, the US had helped to encourage what would become decades of misrule in the country.
It provided a telling example of the malleability of Washington’s foreign policy: against the spectre of an increasingly powerful communist China, the bar for engagement with Burma was set low, and democracy was not a precondition for courting Rangoon.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton risks repeating history when she arrives next week for the most senior-level US visit to Burma since U Nu’s deposition half a century ago. While recent signs of change in the country are promising, and the government’s decision to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the looming by-elections marks a political watershed, the reality on the ground does not match the rosy assessments coming out of the White House and elsewhere. While Suu Kyi’s role in the looming by-elections is unprecedented (she did not compete in the 1990 polls), her potential impact in the current parliament may well be minimal, given the domination of pro-military ministers. Therefore her presence there, while one of many promising signs, is likely to be largely symbolic.
Too heavy an endorsement by the US of the nominal changes underway in Burma could prove to be premature. While recent amendments to laws governing protests, labour unions and media may pre-empt a freer political arena, the country remains in thrall to a military constitution that allows quick reversal of these ostensible openings. Suu Kyi, who warned last year prior to Thailand’s elections that “a new government coming to power under a constitution drawn up by the military will never be stable”, will be operating within an environment constrained by this very factor.
The “flickers of progress” hailed by President Obama last week in announcing Clinton’s dispatch also serve to mask some grisly realities, particularly the ethnic conflict in the border regions and ongoing incarceration of thousands of activists. Tentative moves have been made by the government to bring an end to increasingly multifaceted wars, where Burmese troops have been effectively tasked with securing access to resource-rich areas (perhaps in lieu of attracting western companies to the country’s energy sector), but these have happened before amid similar fanfare. The secretary of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), Nai Hang Thar, told The Irrawaddy yesterday that the new government’s “collective attitude toward the ethnic people is no different from that of the previous military regime.”
Moreover, reports continue to emerge of mass upheaval in war-torn Kachin state, where the UN has been told by the government that it cannot provide much-needed aid to the estimated 25,000 refugees who have fled to rebel territory to escape fighting. Judging by the lack of mention of these issues by US officials, the blind spot that has long hampered diplomats shuttling between Rangoon and Naypyidaw appears to have returned.
While the likes of Clinton have trumpeted Washington’s human rights crusade in Burma, its critics remain sceptical of the true motives for it engaging with a regime so long isolated by the west. Following an announcement last month by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner that the US may consider military cooperation with Burma, long-time Burma analyst Bertil Lintner warned that the US was “more worried about China and North Korea than democracy and human rights in Burma – those issues are just for public consumption, and to make [their approaches to the government] more acceptable to Congress.”
The overtures of Eisenhower and Johnson to Burmese governments of past provide food for thought as Clinton prepares for her historic visit. White House officials do remain cautious, rhetorically at least – benchmarks still need to be met before sanctions are dropped, they say – but only time will tell whether that is to please the sceptics in Congress. If the US jumps the gun and embraces President Thein Sein’s rabble of military officials, cronies and ‘moderates’ too soon (for these are the people who will pull the strings in Burma well into the future), it again risks leaving a legacy tainted by self-seeking priorities.