The first attempt at a breakthrough in Burmese/U.S. relations was reported in classified State Department cables in 2009, according to Wikileaks’ document release. A well-connected “Burmese businessman” was used as an informal and confidential intermediary by the Burmese government to initiate behind-the-scenes discussions to counteract a review in progress in Washington aimed at tightening economic sanctions. Only one month before the businessman’s contact, U.S. Senator James Webb had been impressed during his Burmese trip by the local view that the existing sanctions had effectively “handed over” Burma to Beijing.
The Burmese government now headed by the retired general Thein Sein has edged towards a reconciliation with the West and particularly the United States for the past year. That President Barack Obama saw fit to telephone “the lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, before deciding to send Hillary Clinton to Rangoon this week may have appeared an unusual courtesy. It was in fact a display of a lack of confidence in his own diplomatic and intelligence services that recommended the trip. Obama’s call to Suu Kyi was once again an attempt — oddly not unlike Richard Nixon and other insecure leaders — to inject himself on a personal basis rather than utilize normal chain-of-command governmental exchanges in foreign affairs.
The image of the knight, Sir Barack, riding to the rescue of the distressed damsel, Suu Kyi, perhaps accompanied a White House desire to avoid presenting Mrs. Clinton with the chance to be credited with the breakthrough on the long blocked Burma/U.S. relations. Of course the fact that the Obama flacks are actively burnishing the president’s foreign policy credentials also cannot be ruled out. In any case, the American president seeking reelection at a time when his Middle East non-policy is prominently displayed finds it very convenient to adjust White House focus to the highly dramatic plight of Burma and the long suffering heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The appointed Burmese president, Thein Sein, who is being credited with the new direction of Burmese politics, is definitely one of the “insiders” in the military-controlled government. He was the prime minister for four years in an earlier administration. For that reason, his statements during the past year that emphasized a reorientation of internal priorities and a willingness to work with others who “hold different ideas and concepts” (his words) has given a new tone to the governance of his country.
The reason for the changed focus is less altruistic than it might appear. Thein Sein wants Burma to take major steps toward regaining international status and, most importantly, to have existing sanctions removed. For the moment his willingness to loosen domestic police constraints appears to have the support of key generals of the junta. It may be that the latter finally have recognized that they face either national stagnation or forced reliance on their big brother — The Peoples’ Republic of China. This latter issue already has become a problem. Burma’s northeastern border with China is booming with Chinese commerce to the point that the renminbi has become the currency of choice.
In addition to being a captured market for Chinese goods and services, Burma with its deposits of natural gas has become a nearby source for China’s energy import requirements and thus a target of attempts at Chinese monopoly. China had initiated work on one of the seven dams planned for the Irrawaddy River, requiring the relocation of thousands of people. The Chinese plan for hydro-power development was presented as virtually non-negotiable. To the surprise of Beijing, the Thein Sein government has halted the investment project for the Myitsone Dam and work on the dam itself has stopped. As could be expected, this action by Burma has caused considerable unease in Sino-Burma relations.
Thein Sein initiated this effort to reduce Burma’s economic ties to China about the same time as feelers were being put out for improvement in relations with Washington. Not only does Burma’s new government want to take steps toward reducing Western sanctions, but it has become fairly obvious that it is moving diplomatically to be named to chair the 2014 meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
To gain the active support of the now no longer incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi, several hundred political prisoners have been released as part of an announced program of freeing a total of two thousand. Suu Kyi is key to improved U.S. relations, and she has so far held up her end of the bargain with Thein Sein of non-disruptive politics. She has told the BBC that she perceives Thein Sein as committed to change — at least as can be determined presently. This statement preceded the announcement that the United States’ Secretary of State would visit Burma.
The White House views the adjustment in U.S. relations with Burma as part of the “peace-maker” image for Obama during his run for re-election. As is true on the domestic scene, everything in foreign affairs accomplished by the sitting president during 2012 must be patterned in such a way as to redound to Obama’s benefit as a friend of world peace. Somehow that seems a harder sell to Beijing, with the White House deciding to jump into the Burmese political stew at this time.