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Perils of Good Diplomacy

Written by Taha Kehar  •  June 2013 PDF Print E-mail

Political reforms have come at the cost of severe human rights violations in Myanmar. How long can the international community ignore such atrocities in the favor of engaged diplomatic ties?

Diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the U.S. were established in 1947. Despite an initial eagerness to maintain strong bilateral ties, both countries have failed to demonstrate a consistent focus on international diplomacy. Attempts to consolidate political relations have been exacerbated by General Ne Win’s coup that was geared toward a socialist agenda and economic isolation. However, over the last two years, a grave lacuna in foreign policy has been filled through commendable political and economic reforms. The release of political prisoners such as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is a glaring testament of the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.

Recognizing these efforts to improve relations, President Obama welcomed former military commander and President Thein Sein to the White House for bilateral talks on May 20, 2013. Thein Sein is the first Burmese politician to visit the White House since 1966. The growing improvement in political leadership in Myanmar was the key talking point in favor of strengthening ties between the two countries. President Obama commended the Burmese President for a commitment towards democracy. However, he expressed concerns about the ethnic tensions and discrimination against Muslims in the region. What is particularly interesting to note is Obama’s decision to refer to the country as Myanmar - the name adopted by its military rulers in 1989 - rather than Burma. While this move stands the risk of condoning the long-standing wave of militancy and ethnic strife, it also serves as recognition of the country’s turbulent political history.

Democratic principles can only be fostered if a progressive attitude is adopted and a coherent framework of political and social reforms is introduced. Thein Sein acknowledged the numerous challenges faced by the administration to facilitate a smooth transition towards democracy. Changes to any democratic systems involve risk-taking and a constant process of trial and error.

Although the Burmese administration can be given the benefit of the doubt, this is a carefully disguised excuse for discrepancies in maintaining good governance. The lengthy process of democratic change cannot justify the human rights violations triggered by an unpredictable and volatile political climate. Prolonged ceasefires with the Karen ethnic minority and the liberty given to the army to attack ethnic rebels in Kachin demonstrate the reluctance of the current administration to induce positive change. The road towards democracy is the cornerstone for strengthening foreign relations between the U.S. and Myanmar. If the Burmese administration were to compromise on this fundamental political principle, no amount of good diplomacy will succeed in restoring bilateral ties.

President Thein Sein’s visit to the U.S. serves as a beacon of hope in the South Asian context. Public opinion in the West deems South Asia to be a volatile region. A commitment to engender democratic values into a region dominated by ethnic violence will encourage peace-making initiatives and put an end to political uncertainty.

President Obama’s decision to rehabilitate Myanmar has, however, been criticized as a reckless step. The country has witnessed several decades of military rule and will need time to climb out of its predicament. International groups and human rights activists have voiced reservations about the extent to which ethnic cleansing against Muslims in Myanmar will come to a halt. Over 40 Muslims were killed in central Myanmar, only in the last month. Political upheavals between Buddhists and Muslims in the Rakhine state have resulted in the displacement of countless Rohingya Muslims. Republicans have been skeptical of President Obama’s decision as rewards cannot be given to the Burmese administration if it cannot bring progress to mitigate the risks of bad governance.

The U.S. administration has failed to account for various aspects of its bilateral relations with Myanmar. Describing the region as a success story that requires careful attention, President Obama has adopted a narrow approach to the issue. While the Burmese administration’s decision to release political prisoners and curb restrictions on media censorship are positive steps, it would be risky to justify U.S. foreign policy changes on such pretexts.

Ethnic violence in Myanmar has resulted in political instability. On March 22, 2013, a state of emergency was imposed in Meiktila, a small town in central ‘Myanmar’, following a spate of anti-Muslim riots. Armed Buddhist nationalist demonstrators drove the Muslim community out of Meiktila. Anti-Muslim agitation in the region can be likened to the ethnic cleansing against Muslims in Bosnia during the early 1990s. They stand the risk of undermining the scope for development in Myanmar as most deepwater ports and energy projects funded by India and China are concentrated in cities where anarchy prevails.

India has funded development projects in Sittwe, a deepwater port located north of the offshore natural gas fields, as a part of its ‘Look East’ strategy. These initiatives are geared towards improving accessibility between East India and Myanmar through the construction of sea, river and road routes. However, Sittwe is billed as a dangerous city where ethnic violence against Muslims has been increasingly difficult to manage. Economic development in the port city will be severely compromised if Muslims seek the assistance of jihadist groups to combat militancy. In a similar vein, China’s strategic investments in the region are at a greater risk. China has been developing a land accessible port to rival India’s deepwater port in Sittwe. It has constructed oil and gas pipelines to transport energy from Kyaukphyu to the Yunnan province to provide an alternative route to transport oil to China. Since the incidence of ethnic violence in Kyaukphyu is also particularly high, the fate of this project remains uncertain.

Foreign direct investment from India and China has enabled Myanmar to ignore protests from ASEAN and the United Nations about the ongoing violence. But if jihadist militancy is allowed to infiltrate the political sphere, India and China’s strategic interests would be threatened.

President Obama’s decision to provide pre-mature support to Myanmar could potentially be a means of thwarting these interests. It is an obvious attempt to promote the sectional goals of the U.S. under the guise of improving diplomacy and democracy. 


Taha Kehar is a blogger on social issues and has previously worked for a media magazine. He is currently pursuing Law Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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