The meeting yesterday between presidents Barack Obama and Thein Sein may have been more symbolic than substantive, but it is an important step towards a normal relationship for the United States and Myanmar. It will deepen the engagement of the two countries and move them closer to the broader partnership they want as the transition in the country Washington still calls Burma faces some grave internal challenges.
When Thein Sein took office at the end of March 2011, his inaugural address outlining an ambitious reform agenda was received with scepticism in the United States. But as he brought Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi over to his side, this tone began to change. The April 2012 by-elections saw the National League of Democracy enter Parliament as the largest non-government party. This was the single most important event that led to the reset button being hit on this bilateral relationship. Within the space of about a year, this formerly pariah nation had a new US ambassador and a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama stopped by to deliver a landmark speech in Yangon. Decades-long sanctions were suspended.
What comes next? For a partnership to eventuate, the US will have to stand by Myanmar as it takes steps forwards–and back–for years to come. It will not always be smiles with the band playing anthems. In the last twelve months, we have seen new political freedoms let loose old hatreds in waves of anti-Muslim violence. This showed there is still much to do to transform this country into the tolerant one of Thein Sein’s televised speeches.
- Three interconnected and difficult issues need attention for the country to move forward—citizenship for the Rohingya; building capacity in the police to prevent violence against Muslims; and re-envisioning the country as one that is multi-ethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious.
- The transition from authoritarian rule to democracy could take decades. Key waypoints are the 2015 elections, implementing constitutional reforms, and the achievement of true civilian leadership.
- The US should engage on a broad range of issues and stop using sanctions as a diplomatic tool. An enduring partnership would involve sustained support for the transition across the spectrum of political interests, and transitional development assistance would expand to include programs for education, health, and the media.
The quick fix to stop violence is a home-grown one. Put simply, President Thein Sein’s strong word needs to be met with firm but not repressive action by local authorities. Violent extremism needs to be punished by the law, whoever commits it.
Beyond this, there are three areas that deserve special attention as Myanmar tries to resolve the underlying ethnic and religious tensions that could threaten its transition. It needs more encouragement and not threats from international policymakers, and where possible, offers of practical help to succeed.