What’s Next for U.S. Policy toward Myanmar?
December 17, 2015
The resounding victory of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in the November 8 elections is an outcome many in the United States had long wanted to see. But rather than being an end goal in itself, the election results signaled the start of a more challenging process and have taken Myanmar into completely uncharted territory.
U.S. officials who visited Myanmar after the elections have warned that, although the outcomes of the poll and the manner in which it took place were cause for celebration, nothing should be taken for granted during the period ahead. Aung San Suu Kyi met with President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, both of whom reaffirmed their support for a smooth handover of power to the NLD next year. She also sat down with former dictator Than Shwe, who is said to still command significant influence within the military establishment. He reportedly told her that he recognizes her as the future leader of Myanmar.
However, it is the deals, if any, that may have emerged from those meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military, rather than any pledges, that will set the rules for the next chapter of Myanmar politics.
The United States, which had gone all in to support the elections and, before that, the start of the reform process, needs to configure a new, constructive role for itself in this fast-changing environment. The good news is that U.S interests and those of the incoming government are fundamentally aligned. Washington wants to see continued democratic reforms and greater economic development in the country under the next government, while the NLD was given a strong mandate for further change—which ultimately comes down mostly to job creation, economic growth, and improvement in the standards of living of ordinary citizens across Myanmar.
The United States Agency for International Development has begun consultations with senior NLD officials to better understand the party’s policy priorities—and offer technical assistance where possible—on key issues including economic and legal reforms, public health care, and ethnic reconciliation. Yet in light of continued fiscal constraints at home and competing foreign policy priorities abroad, Washington will need to use its resources prudently and effectively. The capacity-building needs within the NLD’s ranks are immense—few of its members have had any governing experience—and an economic agenda that can deliver dividends on the scale expected by much of the population when it voted for the party will require tremendous development resources.
Engaging with military stakeholders and those in Myanmar who are less enthusiastic about the pace of change in the country will be crucial to both U.S. policy and the success of any future governments. The poor performance of the military-led Union Solidarity and Development Party at the poll came as a shock to most of Myanmar’s traditional elite. While military leaders may have come to terms with the prospect of Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule—something they had spent decades and countless efforts to prevent—they still control enough of the administrative, military, and financial resources to pull strings behind the scenes.
Some within the U.S. government understandably support inching a little closer to Myanmar on military-to-military engagement. The next phase of this relationship should, however, be guided by a full grasp of the Myanmar military’s entrenched role, interests, and the extent of its involvement across all areas—the formal and illicit economies, ethnic armed conflicts, and even the resurging narcotics trade. Aung San Suu Kyi is said to prefer a slow pace of engagement between the Myanmar and U.S. militaries.
Bilateral defense cooperation over the past two years has focused on training and dialogue on human rights and the rule of law, occasionally interspersed with high-level U.S. visits, a trend that is expected to continue. At the same time, Washington can and should step up visits and exchanges with Myanmar’s armed forces in the years ahead.
This is where the importance of coordination and consultation between the executive and legislative branches comes in. Some in Congress who have long supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy struggle and continuously called for the military’s return to civilian control are under the impression that military-to-military engagement has proceeded too quickly since 2012. While the outcomes of the elections have brought the Congress and the administration of President Barack Obama more in line, building support within Congress for any policy adjustments toward Myanmar in the future will be a necessary investment that, if done right, will pay dividends for the long run.
Finally, finding a way forward for the abysmal situation facing the Muslim Rohingya, who do not have citizenship rights and have been discriminated against, in impoverished Rakhine State will be one of the main challenges facing Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, and a U.S. policy priority.
The United States can play a constructive role by suggesting concrete actions that can be taken to quietly support the internally displaced Rohingya return to their homes and help both the Rakhine and Rohingya populations build better livelihoods, and raise economic development across the state. Washington should also lead the international community in forging a more constructive narrative on the Rohingya issue, instead of one the new government will find confrontational.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the December 17, 2015, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)
Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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