Marriage of Convenience

By Kanbawza Win | May 26, 2013

In Burma young people got married through love but lamentably I discovered that in West some people got married for their mutual convenience. Once the inconvenience set in they usually parted their ways without any remorse. This seems to be the case of America and Burma now that President Thein Sein has met with President Obama at the White house the marriage of convenience has been sealed. 

Even though the Burmese media presented it as a highly successful State Visit it was evidently clear that this was just a business trip without the 21 Gun salute or a State Dinner. But both administrations got what they want. One may not dare to label as an unholy alliance but a simple marriage of convenience. There are mutual benefits in any relations; obviously no country would establish diplomatic relations with other nations unless it has some kind of interest, either implicitly or explicitly in economy, politics or global strategic calculations.

One of the primary reasons behind the White House's invitation to Burma’s president was to show its support for the ongoing democratic reforms and to discuss possible ways how Washington can help. The bilateral relations in the past few years have been largely based on a quid pro quo or tit for tat strategy. [1] Some analysts also call it action for action or give and take strategy. The quasi military government of Burma has meticulously responded to the U.S. demands for rapprochement. One best example is on the issue of political prisoners. At first the Burmese government said that there were no political prisoners then they release the bulk of the political prisoners while keeping the more serious ones. In response, the U.S. government decided to resume diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level. Then it suspended investment sanctions which allowed international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to re-establish its links with Burma. The lifting of some sanctions enables the U.S. companies such as Ford Mortor Car, Coca Cola, and Unilever etc to invest in Burma, which in turn benefit both countries economically. Hence, if Burma wants to get more she will have to release more political prisoners and Thein Sein had promised this to Obama. Perhaps, a good bargaining chip in practicing the theory of lying the very concept of truth?

Strategically, Washington wants to reassert its presence in the region as it intends to build closer ties with the Southeast Asian nations. By strengthening ties with Burma, Washington also attempts to compete and contain the rising China, which is Burma's biggest investor.

Burma interests on the United States can be broadly discussed under economy and politics. Normalizing relations with the U.S. will not only attract investment companies, but it will also boost bilateral trades, both in terms of imports and exports. It will also help Burma secure loans and other financial assistance from international institutions associated with the United States.

Politically, the Burmese government, still dominated by former military generals, wants the support and recognition of the United States, especially on the eve of assuming the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations in 2014. The Burmese government will gradually seek the support of U.S. government in developing its security infrastructure, rule of law, education, health, and poverty reduction. Another important agenda of the Thein Sein trip was to convince the U.S. government to lift the remaining sanctions, targeted at individuals and companies. Moreover, President Thein Sein wants to prove to the military hardliners in Burma, who are skeptical of the reforms, that he has the support of the international community. If soft-liners and hard-liners within the Tatmadaw see confidence in its democracy roadmap, provided that there is continued support from the international community, Thein Sean’s visit to Washington can possibly pave the way for amending the 2008 constitution. Amending or rewriting the exiting constitution is not only important but it is a necessity for a true democracy to develop.

Barack Obama hasn’t had a lot of good news of late on the foreign policy front. His non-plan for Syria is under fire from all sides. His non-strategy for the Arab Spring — from Benghazi and Cairo to Iran and Bahrain — has drawn near daily criticism. Chinese hacking is getting worse. The war in Afghanistan drones on. And so it must have been with some sense of relief that the President turned his attention Monday to the one small foreign policy victory his first term can claim: normalization of relations with Burma. This visit is overwhelmingly important. American engagement in Burma is one of the more significant geostrategic developments in our overall Asia strategy in last couple of years,[2]

The reopening of Burma to the Western world is a blow to Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. For much of the past 20 years China was one of the big investors in Burma. But decades of what local authorities came to view as abuse by Chinese companies exploiting Burma’s bountiful natural resources helped create an opening for the Obama Administration, Chinese leaders are “increasingly concerned with the resentment they’re experiencing in Burma. They’re trying to engage on a modified model — building schools, or hospitals trying to come across as a good neighbor — and that requires a lot of repositioning and that will take time. They’re always concerned when the U.S. presence and influence grows around their periphery, and that is happening in a major way in Burma.

It also comes at a time when Chinese relations with other Southeast Asia countries are fraying. Border disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam have soured relations with those two countries. The Obama Administration has done a good job of courting Burma, at a time when Burma’s influence with the ASEAN countries — and with its neighbor to the west, India — is on the rise. The U.S. strategy in “repositioning” Washington’s attention to Asia has been to use the existing multinational institutions like ASEAN, APEC, the East Asian Summit, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to influence China. America has been using these frameworks to convince China to make the rules with their neighbors in this region and play by these rules. Burma is a key member of almost all these groups, and while the U.S. and Burma were at odds, America’s ability to sway regional decisions was limited.[3]

Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without the blessing of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited Washington last September to much fanfare. Suu Kyi, has been working with Thein Sein to open up Burma, what in Burmese we say (ေဒၚေအာင္ဆန္းစုၾကည္ခင္းသည့္ ပန္းခင္းေသာလမ္း)Thein Sein is walking on the bed of roses paved by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. On her visit, she called on Washington lift its sanctions on Burma. Notably, as Thein Sein was in Washington, a 12-member delegation from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was on the first of two planned visits this year to China at Beijing’s invitation.

Obama may not be able to do some of the more forward-leaning requests, like adding Burma to the Generalized System of Preferences,” which gives preferential duty-free entry into the U.S. market for up to 5,000 products for developing countries that qualify. “But it’s clear the Administration is committed to working with Thein Sein, and underlining that is important in itself.” Because despite the outraged protesters at the White House gates, the Obama Administration believes it can achieve a lot more working with the not-quite-democracy than against it — not just for Burma but also for Asia.[4]

US Senator Mitch McConnell, a staunch critic of Burma’s previous military regime, announced his intention to allow key sanctions legislation to lapse in response to the country’s recent democratic progress, and Thein Sein has won Western accolades and concessions. However, certain reforms of his have stalled or gone into reverse, to impose broad and vague censorship guidelines, including a ban on any media criticism of existing laws, legal reform, including over laws used in the past to suppress and imprison journalists. [5] This does not include the ethnic nationalities problem and religious freedoms especially to the Muslims1

Obviously, the US has a wider strategic agenda in engaging Burma beyond the promotion of democracy and rights. News analyses have pointed to Washington’s desire to counter-balance China’s rising influence and nip budding relations between North Korea’s and Burma’s Tatmadaw. So, if Obama administration’s public tack is to reward reform progress with carrots, it should consider re-imposing sanctions and other punitive measures in cases of backtracking.

Despite the current euphoria over Burma, the reality is a depressing picture. With the help of what I would call “agents of capitalism” (scholars, diplomats, development aid experts, representatives of international agencies, investors, entrepreneurs etc), the land and people of Burma are being robbed and sold off under the lie of development and democratic change.[6]

The Burmese quasi military government is now being supported by many whose interests lie in having their way with the riches of Burma. There are claims that Burma, a very poor country, could benefit from more development aid – as does Cambodia. Since the first Cambodian General Election in 1993, over $6 billion has been provided to official donors and hundreds of civil society organizations. Yet, citizens of Cambodia have not been the major recipients of this aid, but government officials, international experts, and advisers have thrived. There is a nasty ongoing land confiscation by developers. People are displaced from their land – just as in Burma – with no recourse to justice. Although Cambodia is now a supposed democracy, Hun Sen still rules. So also in Burma the ex Generals still have their say.

Nor is aid the answer. Real citizen involvement in creating a country is what is needed, not just token involvement by a few. But this is not possible in Burma.

Capitalists, businessmen, and large trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries opened up the world for the British colonial ruler to step in. The Hudson Bay Company became ruler of large parts of Canada before the Dominion of Canada, Cecil Rhodes was put in power by the British South Africa Company to develop Rhodesia (still grants Rhodes scholarship), and the East India Company opened up India and Burma to the British Government. When the last Burmese king refused the demands of the East India Company, it asked for British Government assistance and Britain declared war.

Now Western governments are endeavoring to open new markets for their corporations. They talk only business the market and debt, not health, education, ecology or the common good. The governments of the EU, Norway, Canada, the USA, and Australia have suspended most sanctions on Burma, rewarding the ‘quasi military government’ for its democratic changes. The Australian government has never sanctioned investment in Burma. Yet Australian, French, American, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Russian, Malaysian oil and gas companies currently operate there. Oil and gas exports are the Burmese leaders’ largest source of income, amounting to nearly US $3 Billion in the 2011-12 fiscal years. Despite this resource wealth, the oil and gas revenues over the last decades have been pocketed by a few corrupt military generals. The Western government and companies rushing in to Burma need to study the truth of how Western actions will affect current tensions, relationships and life for the Burmese people.

The Central government has not show any sign of peace process with any of the ethnic nationalities. It construes ceasefire as a fait accompli. After nearly two decades of cease fire with the Kachin, fierce fighting broke out again proves beyond doubt that the Myanmar dominated government has not the will nor the courage to make the country a genuine Union of Burma. Nor they want to share the wealth with the other ethnic nationalities. They want to impose the law of the jungle or the tyranny of the majority over the minority as all their actions have indicated. The Tatmadaw backed government don’t want the genuine Union of Burma but the Union of Myanmar dominated by the Myanmar over the Non –Myanmar (ethnic nationalities). With this rate how long will the marriage of convenience between America and Burma last?

End Notes

[1] Kipgen; Nehginpao, Quid Pro Quo Diplomacy in U.S.-Myanmar Relations 21-5- 2013
[2] Small : Jay Newton; Burma’s Thein Sein Visits Washington Foreign Policy 20-5-2013
[3] Small : Jay Newton; Burma’s Thein Sein Visits Washington Foreign Policy 20-5-2013
[5] Crispen; Shawn W Premature Praise for Burma’s Press Reforms 24-5-2013
[6] Hudson- Rodd Nancy What is really happening in Burma today?

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