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After Half a Century, a Myanmar President Visits Washington
Murray Hiebert, and Kathleen Rustici,
Thein Sein traveled to Washington on May 19 for a three day visit, the first of its kind by a president of Myanmar in 47 years. On May 20, he met with President Barack Obama, who had visited Myanmar in November. The reciprocal visits signal that the United States is investing in the geopolitical importance of Myanmar, which connects South and East Asia, and understands the necessity to carefully support what appears to be transitional political and economic reform in the country.
Obama commended Thein Sein, who came to power in 2011, on his leadership in guiding Myanmar’s reform process. But he also cautioned that the United States is deeply concerned about sectarian violence and ethnic conflict in Myanmar.
Q1: What is the significance of Thein Sein’s visit to the United States?
A1: Thein Sein’s visit demonstrates growing cooperation between the United States and Myanmar as the latter continues to reform. Myanmar’s government is moving from a military dictatorship to a civilian-led democracy based on a 2008 constitution that ultimately brought Thein Sein to power. Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have, in many ways, worked together to lead Myanmar’s reform process. Thein Sein’s efforts have included releasing political prisoners, allowing opposition parties to run for seats in parliament, removing restrictions on free speech and press, and launching economic reforms. In response, the United States, the European Union, and others have eased sanctions during the past year, opening up the resource-rich country to new investment and economic opportunities.
Establishing diplomatic relations with Myanmar allowed the United States to fully engage ASEAN. This is a core element of U.S. strategy in Asia and encourages countries to collectively develop rules and play by them.
Myanmar’s reforms face many challenges. Years of economic mismanagement have left the country impoverished, with weak infrastructure, poor health and education services, and massive economic disparity. Sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims, and ethnic conflict between the central government and Myanmar’s numerous ethnic minorities continue to threaten stability. In order for reforms to reach their full potential, Myanmar’s leaders will need to coordinate substantial assistance, both financial and technical, from donor countries while combating systemic issues such as corruption. The United States is strategically supporting the reforms’ momentum, understanding that both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi are aligned in that effort. The hope is that reform and its outcomes will help drive political settlements for ethnic conflicts, address human rights violations, and resolve religious tensions.
Q2: What were the outcomes of the visit?
A2: Thein Sein’s visit included an array of initiatives designed to build Myanmar’s technical capacity, encourage people-to-people ties, and assist the country with investment and economic engagement. One key deliverable was a much-anticipated Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), signed on May 21 by acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis and Myanmar’s deputy commerce minister Pwint San. The TIFA establishes a platform for ongoing dialogue on trade, and spells out the importance of responsible investment on both sides, citing International Labor Organization rights and standards.
U.S. special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs Carlos Pascual and Myanmar minister of energy Than Htay released a joint statement on May 20 pledging to build transparency and accountability in Myanmar’s energy sector. The sector is plagued by corruption and remains opaque, creating challenges for U.S. companies seeking to enter the market. Than Htay restated Myanmar’s commitment to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, while the State Department announced assistance via the Energy Governance and Capacity Initiative which supports technical and capacity building.
In a statement after his meeting with Thein Sein, Obama highlighted other recent U.S. initiatives to support Myanmar, including a three-year support program announced by the U.S. Agency for International Development on March 8 to help Myanmar prepare for elections in 2015, a recently-established Fulbright program, and a planned Peace Corps program, the first in the country.
Q3: What challenges does the United States continue to face in its relations with Myanmar?
A3: Myanmar’s path to reform is bumpy at best and numerous challenges remain before relations can be normalized. Reforms are currently limited outside of major cities and economic disparity is growing as the country opens up to western investment for the first time in decades.
Human rights groups criticized Obama for hosting Thein Sein amid concerns about Myanmar’s treatment of minority populations. The Kachin continue fighting the government in the north, while Muslim Rohingya are denied citizenship and severely mistreated in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. Widespread attacks on Rohingya last year evolved into attacks against Muslims throughout central Myanmar this year.
Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, were internally displaced by the violence. Police and security officials have been accused of failing to prevent the attacks or being complicit in them.
Perhaps the greatest challenge remains governance. Myanmar’s military remains a dominant, but opaque, player in politics. Twenty-five percent of seats in parliament are reserved for military appointees, allowing them to prevent constitutional reforms, which require 75 percent approval. Peace talks between the government and numerous ethnic groups have shown little progress in recent months. In some ethnic minority states, it is not clear if the civilian government has control over troops on the ground and questions linger about whether some generals oppose reform.
Q4: Where do U.S. relations with Myanmar stand, and what remains to be done?
A4: The United States has shifted its policy toward Myanmar since a quasi-civilian government came to power in March 2011. Initially, its approach relied heavily on President Obama withdrawing sanctions via executive order in exchange for concrete reforms or the release of political prisoners. However, recently the executive is taking a proactive approach in an effort to encourage ongoing reforms.
Most sanctions, except those targeting specific companies and individuals, and those dealing with rare stones, have been suspended and there is little more that can be done without congressional action. The Treasury Department released several general licenses over the past year to allow financial services and new investments. Limitations on military assistance to Myanmar, including prohibition of International Military Education and Training (IMET), remain in place.
Congress is taking an increasingly active role in Myanmar policy, with some individuals calling for speeding up the normalization process while others call for a slower pace. President Thein Sein met with several members of Congress during his visit in an effort to address and appease such concerns. Representatives Joe Crowley and Peter King introduced legislation on May 17 to renew the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sponsored the original bill, said on May 21 that he will not seek its renewal.
Myanmar has a long way to go before it fully realizes its economic and political potential. The United States must continue to support the reform effort across all fronts, and work with Myanmar and other donor countries to ensure effective assistance. Thein Sein’s visit was another step in this continued progress, though it is far from the last.
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies and Kathleen Rustici is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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