Friday, October 9, 2009

US Engagement with Myanmar: Implications for Bangladesh

A few events have put Myanmar on international focus in recent days. Myanmar's Prime Minister General Thein Sein was in New York and addressed the UN General Assembly, the highest ranking General of Myanmar to address the world body since 1995. In New York, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East met the Myanmar Ambassador at the UN and a Minister of Myanmar on the sidelines of the UN general assembly. This was the highest level direct talks between US and Myanmar in a long time and was undertaken at the initiative of President Obama. Under President Bush and President Clinton, the US policy was to punish Myanmar with sanctions to force the release of the Noble Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi with 2,000 other political prisoners and to soften the military regime there that has been in power since 1962, with the present military junta in office since 1988.

The Myanmar military leader also met Senator Jim Webb who is Chairman of the Senate Sub-Committee for Near Asia and Pacific. The senator had earlier visited Myanmar in August to seek the release of the US tourist whose dramatic swim to meet Aung had earned the Nobel Laureate an extension to her house arrest sentence. The senator told journalists that his meeting with the General in New York was to follow up on his discussions with him during his visit to Myanmar. Although the US has made a major shift in policy towards Myanmar, General Thein Sein said in his UN speech that his country would follow its own course towards democracy and would not give in to outside pressure. He also said there was no question of releasing Aung.

Thus, without any major concession, why has the US shifted towards engagement? The reasons are quite a few. First, the Obama administration has concluded that the sanctions have not worked to force the regime to change because US has been alone in trying to isolate Myanmar. Second, commitment of countries crucial to isolate Myanmar has never been forthcoming. China has its own strategic reasons vis-à-vis India to look the other way towards the ruthlessness of the Myanmar regime and to engage with it deeply. India, leaving aside its democratic credentials, has been drawn to Myanmar to balance the Chinese influence as well as to access Myanmar's gas for its energy starved northeast provinces. Thailand has use for Myanmar's gas and Singapore does business with it, acting as Myanmar's major trading link and a safe haven for its generals' wealth. Japan and South Korean companies benefit from doing business there and the European Union have invested heavily in Myanmar's gas industry, their support for sanctions notwithstanding. Third, the suspected nuclear collaboration between Myanmar and North Korea that has recently come to focus has also encouraged USA to seek engagement. Finally, the illegal drug trade has also motivated the change in US policy.

The US Government has, nevertheless, stated clearly that one-way engagement has failed. It has opted for engagement without lifting the tough economic sanctions. The US policy of engagement has also been influenced by a few faint hopes in the horizon of Myanmar's politics. The military junta has announced multi-party elections in 2010 to legitimize its power having achieved national integration by successfully dealing with the Karen insurgency in June this year. Although the junta gave Aung a shortened sentence in her house arrest following the case against her for the meeting with the US tourist, they have nevertheless made sure that her sentence extended beyond the date of the elections. Nevertheless, the US is hopeful that through engagement, the US may be able to push for Aung's participation. The Obama administration has considered the aging process of the leaders of the junta that took power in 1988. Senior General Than Shwe is 76 and reportedly not in good health and his Deputy General Maung Aye is 71. Engagement would allow the US to reach the younger elements of the junta who could be more susceptible to change as they have a better view of the world than the elders in the leadership role. The Noble Laureate has given her go ahead to Obama's initiative of engagement but has also asked the US to talk with the leaders of her National League for Democracy.

In a surprise but parallel development, Aung was escorted on October 3rd from her residence, where she has been in house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years, for a meeting with Relations Minister. It resulted from a letter she wrote to the junta chief Than Shwe a week prior to the date on which she said she would help lift international sanctions. In the letter that was a gesture of cooperation towards the junta, Aung also proposed to hold talks with western diplomats. Although details of the talks have not been revealed, the meeting has given cause for optimism.

There was a time not very long ago when Myanmar was almost totally isolated from the rest of the international community as much as by way of sanctions against it as by its own volition. At that time, Bangladesh was one of the very few countries with which Myanmar had direct diplomatic and economic contacts. Although for a while, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations were restrained with the influx of Rohinga refugees in the late 1970s, the two countries maintained close and friendly relations both under military and democratic governments in the successive decades. Unfortunately, in recent times, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have faltered on the issue of demarcating the maritime boundary. There is also tension in the border where both countries have moved troops. Myanmar is being wooed by both China and India for their respective reasons. China's major interest in Myanmar is strategic. It wants an access to the Bay of Bengal to keep a watch on the naval presence of the US and India in the Indian Ocean, an access that Bangladesh also could provide. However, for that access, China has tilted towards Myanmar because Bangladesh has not been so forthcoming. The factor of geography and internal politics has also worked to bring China and Myanmar closer in strategic partnership.

In such a scenario, the initiative of President Obama to engage with Myanmar would put Bangladesh at a disadvantage. Its problems with Myanmar relating to the vital issue of demarcation of the maritime boundary would not fall on receptive ears if it tried as it may have to at some stage to seek assistance of the United States and other powers that are now drawn towards Myanmar for its rich energy and other resources. Simply put, Myanmar has a lot more to offer to these powers than Bangladesh and the latest developments concerning Myanmar would only make Myanmar more important. Although there is no reason to conclude that this would automatically weaken Bangladesh's position, nevertheless there is the possibility that its concerns vis-a-vis Myanmar would not find takers.

Thus, if the current initiative taken by President Obama succeeds in softening Myanmar towards democracy which is still very unlikely, it would only bring it closer to the US and the others that are in engagement with it. That in turn would strengthen Myanmar's international position which it could use against Bangladesh in the context of its bilateral problems. There is of course the nightmarish possibility of Myanmar becoming nuclear and in that context Bangladesh's position would be worse, in fact precarious.

The recent developments related to Myanmar are very important for Bangladesh. It must activate its foreign policy on a number of fronts. It must talk with the United States without losing time to convey its concerns about Myanmar that should be many so that these are brought into the equation when the US talks with Myanmar in greater depth in the weeks and months ahead. Bangladesh foreign policy makers must also hold in depth talks with China and India, two countries that could be crucial in the way they motivate Myanmar because they are already in direct contact with the military junta there. Bangladesh must find a way to convey to the military junta that it has friends to expect a fair deal on bilateral problems.

Published in the Daily Star, October 10, 2009

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