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How to advance US-Myanmar relations? Go after the low-hanging fruit

With US-Myanmar relations at a low ebb on several fronts, not least the Rohingya issue, observers on both sides of the negotiating table have identified pieces of low-hanging diplomatic fruit that could get the two nations back on track

Bilal Hyder
July 15, 2020
How to advance US-Myanmar relations? Go after the low-hanging fruit
A woman holding a US flag umbrella as she talks on a phone during rainfall in the Myanmar capital Yangon. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

This opinion piece has been written on behalf of Pacific Forum by members of their Young Leaders Program, and published in partnership with Southeast Asia Globe as part of a weekly series looking at geopolitical issues impacting the Asia-Pacific.

In early February, as the US think-tank Pacific Forum held its 7th Myanmar-US Nonproliferation dialogue in the Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw, space was provided to speak for a group whose story is often absent from the Western news cycle. 

Given the floor at this meeting were Myanmar’s long-ignored political thinkers and international relations intellectuals, who shared their insights on relations between these two nations and approaches to improving them. 

The absence of these voices was a rationale highlighted by some Myanmar participants in assessing the current low point in US-Myanmar relations, who expressed that the microphone is often only given to representatives of the Rohingya and the country’s other ethnic minorities to share their perspectives. 

While there are negative implications when the voices of such groups don’t reach the international level, it is debatable that this low point in relations is tied entirely to a lack of foreign understanding of Myanmar’s domestic strife in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states, among others. The elephant in the room that day, specifically the Rohingya question, must be acknowledged and addressed for any real reconciliation to commence between both nations. 

On certain issues, however, the dialogue at the Pacific Forum meeting was enlightening in a manner which offers optimism that relations between the US and Myanmar can improve. The leading assessment from both sides at the dialogue on the present state of US-Myanmar relations is that they are far from optimal, though there are key areas that could prove crucial in influencing and improving these ties.

The first is the preliminary ruling in January by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognising the vulnerability of the Rohingya, while the second is an issue of names and semantics. “Low hanging fruit” was also on the agenda, with issues like the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Conventions, as well as sanctions enforcement, seen as potential avenues for improved relations. 

On the matter of the ICJ, with increasing scrutiny placed on the Tatmadaw by the international community, should Myanmar act to hold accountable the malicious actors within its military, this continued application of pressure on the Tatmadaw could allow the civilian half of the government to resume progress towards a fully democratic system.

By acknowledging the slightest wrongdoing, Myanmar can also make a case that it is committed to identifying a positive resolution to the domestic crisis it faces in Rakhine state, providing optimism as to where the US-Myanmar relationship may go. 

Equally encouraging, as small as it may seem, is the US State Department’s acknowledgment of Myanmar’s name, breaking from the consistent practice of referring to Myanmar by its pre-1989 name of Burma. This reference to the Myanmar government’s preferred name by the world’s leading superpower is a carrot among many sticks. 

These two points of the recent past highlight what optimism there is for the future of the relationship, as do the following non-issue spaces for cooperation.

On the subject of the NPT, along with biological and chemical safety and security implementation, dialogue participants agreed there exists a safe space for cooperation. It was argued during the recent Pacific Forum dialogue that acceding to the NPT is regarded as a metric for success to the US in terms of international cooperation  – a metric which Myanmar meets as it has been a party to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state since 1992. 

However, it is important to note that there are pieces to the NPT puzzle which require changes to bring Myanmar in line with much of the international community. This includes Myanmar’s adoption of a Small Quantities Protocol signed in 1995 and its Additional Protocol signed in 2013, though never ratified. Additionally, Myanmar’s ratification of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Conventions hints at a desire to show the international community that Myanmar wishes to be a constructive player on these issues. 

Going further on this issue Myanmar is also an active member of the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, an affiliation that demonstrates the desire for deeper engagement on the international level. 

This argument, that the truth in Rakhine has been concealed as the microphone is only given to Rohingya, is by no means accurate when we consider the global presence of Aung San Suu Kyi

The progress on these issues is a sign that reconciliation with Myanmar is possible, but this should not be used to discount the actions by Myanmar’s government against its people. The Rohingya question is far more poisonous to the US-Myanmar relationship and failure to acknowledge and work through it will render any progress achieved through this “low hanging fruit” moot.

It is argued that the story of instability in Myanmar has been distanced from the truth and distorted for international audiences by narratives emerging from Western media outlets. This argument, that the truth in Rakhine has been concealed as the microphone is only given to Rohingya, is by no means accurate when we consider the global presence of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

As Myanmar’s State Counselor and a Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi is well-positioned to argue the case of Myanmar’s government and its actions against the Rohingya. With the recent ICJ preliminary ruling, it will be interesting to see if the Myanmar government will act to protect the Rohingya population from genocide and seek conflict resolution policies in the region or stay the course, choosing to lay blame elsewhere.

In hearing the perspectives of the Myanmar participants at the Pacific Forum dialogue, it seemed there was a disconnect on whom the onus of relationship-building sits with. 

In this regard, the US maintains a high level of tolerance for the destructive activities of the Tatmadaw, demonstrating a considerable amount of patience for Myanmar’s transition to full democracy. There is certainly an element of competing with China for regional influence that motivates the US desire to have positive relations with Nay Pyi Taw – though it is hard to argue that the State Department’s Integrated Country Strategy for Myanmar gives less priority to a reduction in violence over building the US-Myanmar relations. 

In moving towards better relations with Myanmar, any step forward on cooperation, no matter how small, is critical. Increasing engagements and agreement over “low hanging fruit” places the US and Myanmar in a better space to interact on far more volatile issues. 

As long as foreign and domestic policy makers are unable or unwilling to build their understanding of the depth of perspectives held by all parties to Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis, the relationship between the US and Myanmar cannot improve, although compromise is achievable. However, the treatment of the Rohingya and other minorities is non-negotiable in any future arrangements.

Talks on the allocation of foreign aid and investment to Myanmar across social groups and regions, along with increased international opportunities for engagement on issues such as law enforcement, should be reopened. That being said, all of this must be done while recognising that each of these carrots must come with restrictions, all the while ensuring that US engagement with the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s government is not interpreted as condoning their actions. 

With proper commitment from both sides to increase engagement and dialogue, and cooperate on issues of mutual benefit, positive change can continue to be negotiated between the US and Myanmar, fostering a stronger relationship and working towards a resolution to the country’s ongoing humanitarian crises.

Bilal Hyder is a member of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and a follower of Indo-Pacific security issues. This work was prepared by the author in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of his employer.

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