Why is Burma Suddenly Our Newest Friend?

Why is Burma Suddenly Our Newest Friend?

Posted on April 26th, 2012 in Blog

It seems all too rare that a foreign nation implements US foreign policy of its own volition, but that is precisely what has happened in Burma, a country that since 1962 and until very recently has been dominated by oppressive military rule. Indeed, following fraudulent elections in 2010, the Burmese regime has voluntarily initiated a series of reforms that shocked the international community in a good way, including

  • Releasing political prisoners,
  • Instituting new labor laws,
  • Easing press censorship,
  • Initiating new peace talks with restive minority groups, and
  • Relaxing currency practices.

The nation has made substantial progress in merely two years – Nobel Peace Prize winner An San Suu Kyi was released from almost 15 years of house arrest and was subsequently elected to Parliament; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the nation to reestablish diplomatic relations for the first time in half a century; and Burma has gained acceptance to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and has even been approved to chair the organization in 2014. These developments would have sounded preposterous 3 years ago. So the question becomes – how and to what extent should the US capitalize on this development? The answer is to engage heavily, and for good reason.

First, Burma presents the US with a unique historical opportunity to champion a beneficiary of our desired policies.  We have a long-standing policy of spreading democracy and free-market capitalism, but when it comes to implementing this policy by acting upon unwilling nations our track record is, quite simply, an abject failure unblemished by success. A successful Burmese nation would not only validate our ideals but also set a precedent for potentially luring other rogue dictatorships into the international community.

Many challenges associated with an oppressive society remain, of course, including hundreds of political prisoners who are still incarcerated, insurgent groups who continue to clash with government forces, a healthcare system that is inadequate, a population that is under-educated and largely untrained, etc. But these problems are also opportunities – the door is open for the US to assume an advisory role to maintain progress and shape further reforms.

And let’s not forget (for our realist friends) that engagement would also be in our national interest. Burma is rich in a variety of natural resources, including timber, minerals, oil and gas. In the construct of relative gains, the benefits here are twofold: garner the resources for yourself, and deny them to nations with whom you compete, including in this case China. Indeed, effective US engagement could deny China the coastal access and energy transport that would obviate China’s need to transit all shipping via the much longer and costlier route through the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca. And lastly, if bilateral relations progressed, Burma could provide a strategic military way point and basing option in the area of the world on which US foreign policy is most acutely focused.

In the end, despite all the flap about foreign aid, we are in such a hole financially and talking about so little money in terms of the actual amount of financial aid and the costs of advisory assistance that even a robust effort would be inordinately inexpensive to the US but invaluable to Burma. Now that they have chosen their path, it would be negligent not to engage and foster outcomes that are mutually beneficial. This tiny backwards country could turn out to be the most significant strategic opportunity we’re going to get.  And besides, we didn’t even have to establish a no-fly zone or otherwise engage militarily to get this far, so this one’s bound to come out cheaper than any number of other recent foreign policy endeavors!