To the surprise of many political observers around the world—both critics and supporters alike—Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on 8 November, 2016.
If the president-elect is going to follow his election campaign promises, he will focus on domestic politics over relations with the international community, including the US “Pivot to Asia”, one of President Barack Obama’s central foreign policy initiatives.
The pivot was meant to be a strategic re-balancing of US interests from Europe and the Middle East towards East Asia. With its pivot program, the Obama administration signalled a shift from his predecessor’s focus on the Middle East. Myanmar under the Bush administration had been under economic and political sanctions.
The Obama administration’s Myanmar policy started in September 2009 when it officially announced a nine-month-long policy review to start engaging the military junta while retaining sanctions.
The policy shift was followed by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar in December 2011, which was the first US secretary of state’s visit to the country in 50 years. The visit was made possible by Myanmar’s progress toward democratic reform, particularly the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
The secretary of state’s visit was followed by the appointment of Derek Mitchell as the new US ambassador to Myanmar on 29 June 2012. The US downgraded its diplomatic representation in Myanmar to charge d’affaires following a military coup in 1988 and a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, as well as due to the nullification of the 1990 general election result, which was overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
In a sign of progress in the bilateral relationship, President Obama first visited Myanmar in November 2012, making him the first sitting US president to visit the country. Obama then visited again in November 2014, partly because Myanmar hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia summit which Obama had to attend.
The bilateral relations improved further in the aftermath of the November 2015 election which the NLD won in a landslide. The NLD’s electoral victory eventually led to the lifting of the long-held US sanctions on Myanmar on 14 September 2016. Subsequently, the Obama administration terminated the National Emergency with respect to Myanmar and revoked the Executive Order-based framework of the Myanmar sanctions program. The US also restored the Generalized System of Preferences trade benefits to Myanmar in light of progress on a number of fronts, including strengthening protection for internationally recognised worker rights.
…it can be guessed or speculated from his election campaign that Trump is unlikely to take a strong personal interest on Myanmar like his predecessor.
However, the US arms embargo under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations and other stringent export controls remain in place. There is also a continued visa ban on a list of individuals viewed as being linked to the Myanmar armed forces, known as Tatmadaw. In addition, there are Specially Designated Nationals located in Myanmar who remain listed under authorities related to North Korea and narcotics trafficking.
With the lifting of sanctions, the US commits to continued cooperation in addressing challenges, such as strengthening the rule of law, promoting respect for human rights, countering human trafficking, combatting corruption, and advancing anti-money laundering efforts and counter-narcotics activities.
President-elect Donald Trump has not made any public statement on what his administration’s policy toward Myanmar would be. But it can be guessed or speculated from his election campaign that Trump is unlikely to take a strong personal interest in Myanmar like his predecessor. For example, Obama established a close rapport with Suu Kyi and also visited the country twice.
But the overarching US policy on Myanmar will largely remain the same. Though a Republican in the White House and a Republican-dominated Congress will make things easier if the US government does choose to implement policy on Myanmar. Republican senators such as John McCain of Arizona and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have been staunch supporters of democracy and human rights in Myanmar.
Whether the Trump administration will have an interest or focus on Myanmar will also depend on America’s broader policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.
But as the leading advocate of human rights and democracy around the world, the US needs to continue its unfinished objectives in Myanmar, especially in areas such as the consolidation of democracy, the peace process between the government and ethnic armed groups, and on the sensitive question of the Rohingya issue. Challenges remain in the democratisation process, especially in areas of institutional building, constitutional amendment, as well as the need for gradually reducing the role of the military in politics.
The second phase of the 21st century Panglong conference is due to begin in the month of February 2017 but heavy armed clashes continue between the Myanmar Army and members of the Northern Alliance—the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Arakan Army (AA).
Under the present circumstances, it is unlikely that majority of the armed groups will attend and or participate in the upcoming conference. It must be remembered that the first Panglong conference in 1947 failed partly due to the non-participation of all major ethnic nationalities of the time. Only representatives from the Chin, Kachin, and Shan ethnic groups signed the Panglong agreement with the Burmese government representative Aung San to form an interim government. Soon after the country’s independence, insurgency movement started that continues until today.
Another major problem where the Trump administration should diligently help or at least offer assistance is on the question of the Rohingya conundrum. One way to do that would be to encourage the Kofi Annan-led commission, which the NLD government appointed to find a long-lasting solution to the problem.
Featured image credit: Hluttaw Complex, Naypyidaw by Peerapat Wimolrungkarat. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.