US begins to pamper Myanmar

Posted On January 17, 2012

Obama administration’s overriding aim in Myanmar is two-fold. One wean Yangon away from Beijing; two encourage peaceful and orderly political change.

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The US has taken the first steps toward lifting sanctions on Myanmar, which have been in place since 1990. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a waiver on February 6 that will end formal US opposition to the World Bank and other international financial agencies lending aid to the ‘pariah’ country.

World Bank vice-president Pamela Cox announced on February 16 that the bank was reengaging with the Myanmar government “to support reforms that will benefit all of the people of Myanmar, including the poor and vulnerable.”  The European Union has suspended visa restrictions on Myanmar President, vice presidents, and members of parliament noting that the junta had released hundreds of political prisoners last month. European Union Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs met with President Thein Sein and announced $US200 million in aid.  Myanmar can now hope to see FDI flows to tap its mineral wealth.

Obama administration’s overriding aim in Myanmar is two-fold. One wean Yangon away from Beijing; two encourage peaceful and orderly political change.

For China, Myanmar is vital for providing transport and pipeline routes directly from the Indian Ocean to southern China. Washington’s diplomatic efforts, therefore, are part of a broader strategy to counter Chinese influence throughout Asia.

Hillary Clinton visited the country in December—the first such trip by a US Secretary of State for more than half a century. Her visit was preceded by a flurry of visits by several high level US officials. Washington has since announced that an ambassador would be sent to Myanmar for the first time in 20 years.

The United States and Myanmar had relatively close military and intelligence cooperation until 1988, the year when the junta cracked the whip.  Now these ties are set to be revived with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David H. Petraeus planning a visit to the country later this year.  Petraeus discussed the possibility of the visit with the Thai foreign minister, Surapong Tovichakchaikul at a meeting in Bangkok in early February.

Surapong told Thai news media that Petraeus had said he would “definitely” go to Myanmar. Local reports said Clinton had asked him to visit Myanmar. The visit would allow for more detailed discussions and deeper cooperation between the two countries, Robert Fitts, director of the American studies program at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok told the New York Times on February 7.

What the U.S. is trying to do is send every signal of support to the forces pushing for liberalization in Myanmar, according to Fitts. It also signals re-establishing old links and weakening Chinese influence.

The West, particularly the US, is encouraged by the moves of the government in Yangon for peace and reconciliation in the country. Thein Sein, a former general, who became President after a general election in 2011, began the process of dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She may enter Parliament in April by standing in a by-election due on April 1.

Suu Kyi and her NLD hope to win most of the 48 seats at stake in the by-poll. It is possible that Suu Kyi will have a say in the government since President Thein Sein has ensured that the ban on her party is lifted and facilitated her electoral fray. This was in marked contrast to the   days gone by when she was held in house arrest for long years.

Suu Kyi’s own dialogue with the regime has made it easier for the White House to gain bipartisan support for its Myanmar policy.


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