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In Retrospect: US-Burma Relations in 2012

U.S.-Burma relations in 2012 were an outcome of years of diplomatic maneuvering since the downgrading of U.S. representation in Burma from ambassador to chargé d'affaires in the aftermath of 1988 democracy uprising and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) military government's refusal to acknowledge the 1990 general election results. It was also a result of the U.S. government's dual-track policy, using carrots and sticks.

As a condition to normalizing bilateral relations, the U.S. government made some fundamental demands: the release of all political prisoners (approximately over 2,000 held in different prisons across Burma in the beginning of 2012), inclusive dialogue with opposition parties and ethnic minorities, adherence to the UN non-proliferation agreements on nuclear weapons and to end any illicit cooperation with North Korea, greater accountability on human rights issues, and to end violence against ethnic minorities. The U.S. government also asked the Burmese government to hold free and fair by-elections.

Firstly, a total of 651 political prisoners were either released or offered presidential pardon by the Burmese government on January 13. Those released included prominent political prisoners, including leaders of the 1988 democracy uprising, the ex-military intelligence chief and deposed Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt, and ethnic Shan leaders Hkun Htun Oo and Sai Nyunt Lwin, who were sentenced to 93 and 85 years prison sentences respectively.

Secondly, the Thein Sein government signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic armed groups: Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), Chin National Front (CNF), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Karen National Union (KNU), Karen Peace Council (KPC), National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang (NSCN-K), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA), and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N).

Thirdly, the government held April by-elections successfully. The NLD won in 43 of the 44 seats it contested. One seat each was won by the ruling USDP and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP). The USDP candidate captured the seat where the NLD candidate was disqualified. The SNDP won a seat from the Shan state. The participation of NLD and other political parties associated with ethnic minorities boosted the government's claim for legitimacy and credibility of its seven-step "road map" toward democracy that initially began in 2003.

As the Obama administration promised to reciprocate action for action, Derek Mitchell, Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma, was confirmed as the new U.S. ambassador on June 29. The U.S. investment sanctions was lifted on July 11, which was followed by the suspension of import bans on goods from Burma on September 27. The lifting of investment sanctions enabled US companies and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to begin reestablishing links with Burma.

The U.S. made four important achievements from the improved relations: triumph of diplomacy over isolation; an assurance that Burma has not engaged in any illicit engagement with North Korea on nuclear programs; a symbol of democracy and human rights around the world; and building a firmer foundation of its presence in Southeast Asia.

In addition, the improvement of relations enabled the U.S. government to re-establish the US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission to Burma, lend support for a normal UN Development Program (UNDP) country program, to facilitate travel to the U.S. for select Burmese officials and parliamentarians. It also paved the way for U.S. and Burma to cooperate on the recovery of Americans missing in action or prisoners of war during World War II.

By improving the bilateral relations with the United States, the Burmese government achieved its goal of legitimacy it long sought. Until the April by-elections, the U.S. and other Western nations still considered the results of the 2010 general elections unrepresentative of the people. The other major achievement was the lifting of sanctions.

The positive diplomacy culminated in President Obama's visit to Burma on November 19, the first ever visit by a sitting U.S. president. The historic visit, was however, criticized by several rights groups arguing that it was premature to make such a high-profile visit when violence still continued in Kachin and Rakhine states, and when political prisoners still remained behind bars. The Obama administration said the president's visit was to acknowledge the democratic reforms and to encourage further reforms.

On a positive note, both governments must be congratulated for taking the necessary steps to improve bilateral relations. However, the primary concern now is that whether political gestures from the Burmese government will lead to addressing ethnic minority problems, which remains the crux of decades-old conflicts in the country. When can the Burmese government sign ceasefire agreement with ethnic Kachins, and will the signed ceasefire agreements with various groups lead to guaranteeing autonomy?

Moreover, will the 2008 constitution be amended to remove the inherent role of military in politics, which currently guarantees 25 percent of seats in the parliament without election? Will all remaining political prisoners be released unconditionally? Can the Rohingya problem be resolved amicably? Uncertainty remains as to how the U.S. government will respond in case of the non-fulfillment of these expectations.

Overall, 2012 was a significant year in terms of diplomatic rapprochement. Nevertheless, the longevity and durability of bilateral relations between the two nations will be contingent upon how democratic transition progresses inside Burma.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally. His latest article entitled "U.S.-Burma Relations: Change of Politics under Bush and Obama Administrations" is scheduled for publication in Strategic Analysis by Routledge in March 2013.

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