An Interim Assessment of Evolving U.S.-Burma/Myanmar Relations

An Interim Assessment of Evolving US-Burma/Myanmar Relations from East-West Center on Vimeo.


(Washington D.C.) December 17– Though a U.S. policy review has led to new engagement between the United States and Burma, there are still many issues to tackle if relations between the two countries are to improve. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar co-hosted by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, Dr. David I. Steinberg, distinguished professor of Asian Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, introduced his new book, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know , and discussed the current state of U.S.-Burma relations and the prospects for the future.


In February 2009, the United States announced a review of its policy toward Burma, leading to new engagement between the two countries. In the spring, tentative steps were made to open up communication between the two governments, leading to a series of meetings at the official level. The U.S. policy review on Burma was extensive, leading some human rights commentators to worry that the United States might eliminate sanctions or soften its stance on human rights issues in order to achieve greater cooperation with Burma. However, the result of this review is a new period of “pragmatic engagement” in which the United States will continue its sanctions while at the same time maintaining dialogue with Burma at a high level.


Dr. Steinberg explained that it is difficult to say what Burma’s response to U.S. engagement will be. Nationalism, Dr. Steinberg noted, will play a key factor in Burmese decision-making as it engages with the United States. He explained that the fear that the United States will invade Burma is alive and well in the country, and this impedes the relationship. He also noted that Burma is an issue that is of great concern to groups in the United States, who will continue to call for U.S. action to protect human rights issues in Burma regardless of the state of the negotiations between the two countries.
Certainly the Burmese government is concerned about the upcoming scheduled elections, especially with U.S. and world attention being so closely fixed on the country. While the United States has expressed a desire that these elections be “free and fair,” Dr. Steinberg worried that Burmese and U.S. perceptions over what this means may be quite different. Though we cannot predict how the elections will be run or what the results of the elections will be, Dr. Steinberg argued that post-election Burma will still be controlled, in part, by the military due to the active role that the new constitution ensures for them. New political parties will develop that are peopled by former members of the military and, at the same time, Dr. Steinberg suggested that we can expect new opposition parties to develop. Whether the voices of these opposition parties will be heard in the domestic press, however, is difficult to determine. Further, he pointed out that the military leadership has already called for a hiatus in international NGO activities in the country during the campaigning and election period, indicating a concern that international groups will try to influence the elections in some way.


Another important issue facing the U.S.-Burma relationship is that of human rights issues, including the continued imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi and the status of the minority groups in Burma that have long been in conflict with the military government. Dr. Steinberg noted that, in the past, the military government had insisted on the disarmament of all rebel groups among the minorities as a precondition of cease-fire agreements. However, he explained that in recent months discussions have begun for the creation of “border guard” forces which would allow rebel groups in the minority areas to keep their arms as long as they would incorporate Burmese military units into their organizations, an act which Dr. Steinberg argues would destroy the minority organizations. Whether the minority groups will agree to this offer is a serious issue that will have important consequences for the upcoming elections. He explained that countries like China and India, which are worried about instability along their borders, will continue to carefully monitor the situation as deadlines for reaching agreements with minority groups continue to be delayed.


Whatever the outcome of this new engagement, the process must be slow and deliberate. As the two countries move forward, Dr. Steinberg explained that there are several key things that the United States could do to keep the ball rolling. He suggested that it may be time to welcome a Burmese ambassador back to the United States as a gesture of good will. Further, he pointed to the importance of the role of NGOs in U.S. engagement with Burma, and noted that the U.S. government could do more to interact with this community. Burma, on the other hand, could indicate its commitment to the new engagement by releasing the many political prisoners held in its prisons and allowing freedom of the press. Dr. Steinberg explained that these two activities would signal that Burma is indeed working toward improved relations with the international community.


David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he was director of the Asian Studies Program for ten years. He is the author of thirteen books and monographs, six of which are on Burma/Myanmar, and some 100 articles/chapters, of which about 50 are on that subject. He also writes extensively on Korean affairs. As a member of the Senior Foreign Service, USAID, Department of State, he was Director of Technical Assistance for Asia and the Middle East and Director for Philippines, Thailand, and Burma Affairs. He was a representative of The Asia Foundation in Burma, Hong Kong, Korea, and Washington, D.C., and President of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. Professor Steinberg was educated at Dartmouth College, Lingnan University (China), Harvard University, and the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where he studied Burmese and Southeast Asia. His latest volume is Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press. 2009). Other volumes include: Turmoil in Burma: Contested Legitimacies in Myanmar (2007), and Burma: The State of Myanmar (2001).