By Murray Hiebert —
U.S. president Donald Trump should call Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi soon and invite her to visit Washington. She is the last of the leaders of larger Southeast Asian nations to whom a top official of the new administration has not yet reached out. (Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia has not had a call since Trump took office, but the two talked on the phone shortly after the new president was elected in November).
With the just-completed visit to Washington by Vietnam’s prime minister, Trump’s phone calls to the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore in late April during which he invited them to the White House, and Vice President Mike Pence’s stop in Indonesia in mid-April, the lack of contact with Myanmar leaves a sizeable hole in the new administration’s outreach to Southeast Asia.
One of the reasons Trump called the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore was to urge them to cut their not-insignificant trade and exchanges with North Korea to pressure the regime to rein in its nuclear and missile programs. It might also be prudent to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi — and perhaps to military chief Min Aung Hlaing — about North Korea.
The military junta that ran Myanmar until reforms began in 2010 had a program to barter rice for military equipment with North Korea and there have long been reports of the two sides cooperating on a secret nuclear weapons program. In May 2011, the U.S. Navy intercepted a North Korean ship carrying missile technology in the Andaman Sea near Myanmar and forced the vessel to return home. Under the reform government, Myanmar officials have repeatedly said they have taken steps to extricate the military from its dealings with Pyongyang.
The U.S. government played a critical role in promoting Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party in 2015. By lifting decades-long economic sanctions and normalizing diplomatic relations, Washington made it possible for Myanmar to get out from under its near-total dependence on China for aid, trade, and investment and expand its political, economic, and military ties with the larger world.
To be sure, Myanmar’s transition has been bumpy and faces giant hurdles. Late last year, the military, which does not report to Aung San Suu Kyi, responded with harsh tactics to an October attack by Rohingya Muslims on some police outposts in Rakhine State that have prompted concerns in the United States and many western countries about atrocities and abuses.
The second peace conference called by Aung San Suu Kyi to end six decades of ethnic fighting ended on May 29 without achieving a major breakthrough between the government and the ethnic armies. Although representatives of the government and the armed ethnic groups signed an agreement on 37 out of 45 principles of federalism, the six-day summit ended with the ethnic groups insisting on greater autonomy, while government and military officials voiced concern that too much federalism could tear the country apart.
On top of that, economic reform has been slow and growth lethargic. Washington lifted its remaining sanctions against Myanmar and the businesses that long profited from ties to its military during Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington last September, but investment from U.S. and other western firms has been slow. Even though the Parliament has passed new foreign investment laws, foreign investment in the country dropped roughly 30 percent in the fiscal year that ended in April.
Although disappointing, none of these problems should be surprising following decades of military rule, sanctions, and isolation. Ending half a century of fighting with ethnic armies, promoting harmony between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims, and jumpstarting an economy suffering from a dilapidated infrastructure, weak legal system, and a government without enough knowledgeable officials cannot be achieved overnight.
The fact that the new U.S. administration has not articulated a policy toward the Asia Pacific or taken steps to reengage Myanmar has not been lost on either Myanmar or its former patrons in China. Using Myanmar’s other name, a recent editorial in The Irrawaddy observed that “amid the unpredictable challenges of this democratic transition, western influence on Burma is waning, while Beijing is becoming more assertive, reassuring the status quo in the country.”
The paper added that “the Burmese are understandably wary of their huge and important neighbor — as they should be. Many question China’s intentions in Burma, as well as its geopolitical interests and economic sway.”
China has been busy trying to regain some of its pre-2011 position while the new U.S. administration has been focused on setting up shop in Washington. China hosted Myanmar’s figurehead president Htin Kyaw for a visit in April. In mid-May President Xi Jinping invited Aung San Suu Kyi on her second trip to China in a year to participate in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit. During her visit, leaders of the two countries signed five agreements, including a memorandum of understanding on cooperation under the BRI and another on establishing an “economic cooperation zone” along their border. Soon after her return, Chinese warships participated in joint exercises with Myanmar’s navy.
U.S. engagement eight years ago made it possible for Myanmar to take risks in launching reforms, moving toward democracy, and expanding ties with the outside world. This outside support made it possible for Myanmar to suspend work by a Chinese investor on the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam near China’s border in response to domestic protests about the environmental damage that would be caused by the hydropower project.
But limited engagement from the United States in recent months coupled with continued criticism about how slowly Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is addressing its problems is again prompting Myanmar to look to China for support and assistance. Officials know they will get help and not face criticism from Beijing.
To encourage Myanmar in its fitful reform efforts and give the government some counterweight to renewed courtship by China, Trump needs to call Aung San Suu Kyi and invite her to the White House. He should reassure her that Washington will continue to support Myanmar despite the country’s difficult and fitful transition to democracy.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. This post originally appeared in the June 1, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.