The United States announced on Wednesday that it will provide an additional $21 million in development aid to help strengthen governance in Burma, as a newly elected civilian government settles into its daunting first term.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, an assistant to US President Barack Obama, revealed the new assistance package during a policy speech at Rangoon University, where he spoke with students and journalists at the end of his fifth visit to Burma.
Rhodes expressed the Obama administration’s satisfaction with Burma’s progress toward democracy, some eight months after Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to power in a historic election last year.
“I don’t think we ever could have anticipated… just how far events would have come,” Rhodes said, appearing finally at ease after four years of cautious engagement that at times looked like it could easily have gone south.
“When the President came here in 2012, it was at a moment when we really didn’t know exactly where the changes in Myanmar were going to lead,” he recalled. “The future was very uncertain.”
Even during his last visit, just weeks before the November vote, the White House official fielded tense questions about disenfranchisement, religious discrimination and anxiety over the possibility of violence.
The new assistance will be delivered through the United States’ primary aid agency, USAID, and will target economic governance as Burma’s new leadership finds its footing in the wake of a decades-long authoritarian reign.
Suu Kyi’s rookie administration was dealt a difficult hand stacked with poverty, a drug crisis and a bruising legacy of civil war, while inheriting weak and poorly equipped institutions. Rhodes said the aid is meant to ensure that the new government has the capacity to tackle these problems while creating a welcoming field for foreign partners.
“Our fundamental objective is to help the new government succeed,” Rhodes said, adding that “we want to see as much trade and investment as possible.”
As a top foreign policy advisor, Rhodes was instrumental in crafting Obama’s rapprochement policy with Burma, Cuba and Iran. He first visited Burma in 2012 alongside Obama and then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, in a historic state visit cementing the United States’ early support for the country’s reform agenda.
In the four years since, economic sanctions have been eased to encourage trade and investment, while the US military has begun limited trainings with Burma’s notorious army in an effort to reform the armed forces.
While Burma’s military has taken a few tepid steps back from politics, it still has a 25 percent grip on parliament, control of three powerful ministries and veto power over constitutional amendments. Rhodes said the United States hopes to see “full civilianization” of the government and civilian control of the armed forces in the years to come.
The Burma Army, known the world over for committing gross human rights violations, on Wednesday made an unprecedented admission that its soldiers were responsible for the unlawful killing of five villagers in the country’s war-torn Shan State. The rare promise of justice was welcomed by rights advocates but treated with scepticism by a public harboring deep distrust of all things military.
Rhodes’ visit will likely be the last by a White House official before a presidential election in November, as Clinton, a longtime ally of Suu Kyi, faces off against Republican nominee and real estate tycoon Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry officials confirmed on Thursday that Suu Kyi had accepted an invitation from Obama, delivered by Rhodes, to visit the United States before the end of his final term in office.