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A new start for the US-Burma relationship

On April 1, long-time Aung San Suu Kyi confidant Htin Kyaw will take office as the new President of Myanmar. While The Lady will not be president, the fact that her National League for Democracy (NLD) party now controls the government is a turn of events hardly imaginable just a few years ago. Burma – a country ruled for 50 years by a succession of military dictators – will now have a democratically elected government.
Over the last six years the United States has made clear its willingness to engage and offer benefits to the people of Myanmar as democratic changes take place. The U.S. has restored full diplomatic relations, removed many of the harshest sanctions, and rapidly increased assistance to support the government’s reforms and efforts to build more effective institutions.
{mosads}But the story of Burma’s transition is just beginning. Now, Burma is faced with a series of new challenges: managing relations between the new government and a powerful military establishment to ensure reforms take hold; concluding and implementing a national ceasefire in long-running conflicts with ethnic militias; protecting the Rohingya; and bolstering economic growth and developing functioning institutions.
The United States can play an important role in supporting the transition. As the new NLD-led government takes charge, there are four key areas where the United States should focus.
First, the U.S. must ensure sanctions have the intended effects. Sanctions were imposed originally during a period of harsh repression, and used as a tool to punish the government and incentivize reform. Now that the reform process has progressed and the NLD holds power, sanctions should not be viewed as “leverage”, but rather as a way to ensure that U.S. actions are not inadvertently supporting bad actors.
As such, the U.S. must make the delisting process from the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list transparent and responsive so that individuals have faith that doing the right thing will remove this mark from their name.  The SDN list should be refined regularly so that certain companies are not penalized just because they are partially owned by former junta leaders.  Likewise, reporting requirements for U.S. businesses need not be so burdensome as to deter would-be investors, who ultimately can do a great deal to shape the business culture in the country.
Second, the United States must increase its military-to-military engagement with the Burmese military to support professionalization. This issue arouses heightened sensitivity in certain corners because the military was the entity that ruled the country repressively for so long. But the military controls 25 percent of Parliament, the ministerial posts of defense, border affairs and home affairs, and huge stakes in the economy, and therefore the military must be engaged, not isolated.  The United States must forge relationships with its leaders and younger ranks of officers, and increase exchanges to help professionalize the military and encourage it to respect human rights.
Third, the United States must support the rights of the Rohingya. The conditions that the Rohingya are subjected to are deplorable, yet the new NLD-led government has shown few indications that it will dramatically change the government’s position towards the Rohingya.
But with a new government there is a window to change course. The United States should make clear that assistance and investment in Burma will be hampered until real steps are taken to address the Rohingya situation, including consistent humanitarian access and including them in the national political and economic sphere as citizens through a voluntary process that respects their rights.
Fourth, the United States should organize an international effort to support sustainable economic growth in Burma.  With a population of more than 50 million people and abundant natural resources, there is already intense interest from businesses around the world—but only if the environment continues to improve. With such a fast-moving environment on the ground, the United States should empower its Ambassador to expand coordination with the Ambassadors of other countries to increase the Embassy’s authority to direct resources.
For years, the people of Burma have endured repression and conflict, and the changes of the past few years are nothing short of historic. But as with any transition to democracy, this process will take years, and so the United States must take the long view. As all factions of the country are trying to come together, the U.S. must stop thinking about Burma in terms of good guys and bad guys. The United States has started off on the right foot, and must continue to evolve its bold but realistic approach.

Brian Harding is Director for East and Southeast Asia for the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress, and worked on Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy) from 2009-2013. Michael H. Fuchs is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2013-2016.


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