Myanmar breakthrough: Does it validate Obama policy of engaging adversaries?
The US announced it was restoring diplomatic ties with Myanmar, and some US officials credited Obama's policy of engagement with helping to bring one of the world's pariah states in from the cold.
Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
The United States restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar Friday, saying it was making good on a commitment to âmeet action with actionâ as the long-isolated Southeast Asian country has moved rapidly on political and economic reforms.
Just hours after Myanmarâs new civilian government announced the release of hundreds of political prisoners, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US would exchange ambassadors with Myanmar, also known as Burma, for the first time in two decades.
The US announcement also followed Myanmarâs declaration of a cease-fire with ethnic Karen rebels, a sign of the new governmentâs recognition of Myanmarâs ethnic diversity. According to US diplomats, ethnic violence and repression may be the most difficult challenge the country faces.
The focus Friday was on Myanmar and the role US diplomacy has played in bringing one of the worldâs pariah states in from the cold. But some administration officials were keen to depict the breakthrough as a success for President Obamaâs policy of engaging Americaâs adversaries.
Mr. Obama came into office âcommitted to trying to engage in many parts of the world where we had frozen relations,â says a senior State Department official. âIn this case âŚ weâre seeing progress. In other cases,â the official adds, the US effort was ânot reciprocated.â Â Â
Secretary Clinton signaled a warming of relations with Myanmar, for decades ruled by a harsh military junta, with a groundbreaking visit at the end of last year. âAs I said in December,â Clinton said at the State Department Friday, âthe United States will meet action with action.â She added that a âlengthy processâ lies ahead that will âdepend on continuing progress and reform.â
At a briefing following Clintonâs announcement, a senior State Department official said the US will be watching a number of key indicators for sustained progress toward reform, including elections set for April 1 and government negotiations with ethnic rebels and other groups.
But the official said all indications were that the announced release of 651 political prisoners was genuine and, while it did not include all of the countryâs political prisoners, did include a substantial number of high-profile dissidents, student leaders from past pro-democracy movements, and even some former military chiefs.
The governmentâs action constitutes âone of the largest releases of political prisoners in Asiaâs history,â the official said.
In her announcement, Clinton said she would speak by telephone this weekend with the countryâs president, Thein Sein, and with Nobel laureate and prominent pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, âto underscore our commitment to walk together with them on the path to reform.â Aung San Suu Kyi has already said her political party will participate in the April 1 elections.
The Obama administration portrays the breakthrough with Myanmar as a sign of its commitment to revitalizing and expanding US ties to Asia. That emphasis is most often interpreted as a desire to fortify Americaâs influence in a region dealing with a rising China.
But the Myanmar case also underscores how the US sees its role in enhancing the East Asia regionâs security. The State Department is sending a team of security officials to Myanmar to discuss the governmentâs commitment to ending arms purchases from North Korea, as well as prospects for enhanced relations between the country and the United Nationsâ nuclear watchdog agency.
The US wants Myanmar to cut its military ties to North Korea, and to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that would commit the country to transparency on any nuclear activities.
Myanmar has in the past purchased small arms but also missiles from North Korea, the senior State Department official said at the briefing, the latter in particular putting the country in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
The official noted that Myanmar remains âamong the most sanctioned countries in the world,â but that in the âaction for actionâ spirit the US is committed to removing its sanctions and promoting the removal of international sanctions in return for Myanmarâs concrete steps on political reform and regional security.
Lifting sanctions wonât occur overnight, since in most cases congressional approval is necessary. But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the minority leader, offered his support for the administrationâs move Friday â on the eve of a trip he is making to Myanmar.
âThe Thein Sein government will need to do more to explain the military relationship with North Korea and hold free and fair elections,â Senator McConnell said in a statement,â adding that ârestoration of more formal diplomatic tiesâ at this time appears to be âentirely appropriate.â
Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, chairman of the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee and a leading advocate of US outreach to Burma, hailed the dayâs developments as âhistoric steps,â saying âIt is in our national interest and in the interest of regional stability to bring Burma back into the international community in a positive way.â
In a statement, he also called on the US to build on its efforts so far, saying âwe should take advantage of all of the tools at our disposal to facilitate Burmese economic development, political reconciliation, and ultimately greater progress toward democratic governance.â