Will Trump take up task to nur­ture Burma’s nascent democ­racy?

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY DAVID NAKAMURA david.nakamura@wash­post.com

As Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son wel­comed of­fi­cials from 10 South­east Asian na­tions last week, a Burmese rep­re­sen­ta­tive handed him a per­son­al­ized let­ter.

The au­thor was Aung San Suu Kyi, the No­bel Peace Prize win­ner and de facto leader of the na­tion’s civil­ian govern­ment, who wanted to ex­press her re­gret for be­ing ab­sent be­cause of a sched­ul­ing con­flict, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

The note rep­re­sented rare di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Suu Kyi and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. As President Trump has made a flurry of calls to for­eign lead­ers, he has yet to speak with Suu Kyi, who twice wel­comed Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor, Barack Obama, to her lake­side villa in Ran­goon as a pow­er­ful sym­bol of U.S. sup­port for Burma’s slow, fit­ful tran­si­tion from au­thor­i­tar­ian mil­i­tary rule to fledg­ling democ­racy.

The Burma project re­mains fraught — po­lit­i­cal re­forms have ebbed, and Suu Kyi has faced in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cism for fail­ing to speak out more force­fully against eth­nic vi­o­lence di­rected to­ward the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity. And China con­tin­ues to ex­ert eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sure on the neigh­bor­ing na­tion of 54 mil­lion, also known as Myan­mar.

From Capi­tol Hill to Ran­goon, the ques­tion is whether the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will con­tinue to nur­ture Burma’s tran­si­tion or turn its back at a cru­cial junc­ture.

“The coun­try wants it. It gives them a sense of con­fi­dence,” Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. am­bas­sador to Burma from 2012 to 2016, said of po­lit­i­cal sup­port from Washington. “But the fo­cus on things we care about, such as val­ues and democ­racy and hu­man rights, they don’t feel that with Trump. There’s a cost in los­ing all of that.”

Be­hind the scenes, Burma’s am­bas­sador to Washington has been press­ing the White House for more at­ten­tion from high-level of­fi­cials, a sign of Suu Kyi’s un­cer­tainty about Trump’s pub­lic si­lence.

Trump aides em­pha­sized that the president’s fail­ure to con­tact her is not in­tended as a slight. On Fri­day, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster hosted the South­east Asian of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Burma’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, at the White House. Trump aides said the president, who was away at his estate in Bed­min­ster, N.J., would have stopped by had he been in town.

The ques­tions over Trump’s ap­proach to Burma come as the ad­min­is­tra­tion is start­ing to for­mu­late its broader pol­icy stance to­ward South­east Asia and what role the coun­tries there may play in the U.S. ef­fort to fur­ther iso­late North Korea diplo­mat­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials pointed to sev­eral sig­nals in re­cent days that were in­tended to re­as­sure the re­gion that the White House would main­tain a fo­cus there even as it scrapped the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “Asia re­bal­ance” pol­icy aimed at deep­en­ing U.S. se­cu­rity and trade ties.

In In­done­sia last month, Vice President Pence an­nounced Trump would at­tend a trio of se­cu­rity and eco­nomic sum­mits in Viet­nam and the Philip­pines this fall.

Tiller­son em­pha­sized to the South­east Asian of­fi­cials that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would make a “sus­tained com­mit­ment” to the re­gion, said W. Pa­trick Mur­phy, the State Depart­ment’s deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for South­east Asia.

In a con­fer­ence call with re­porters, Mur­phy added that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­la­tion­ship with Burma would be “en­dur­ing.”

In a sep­a­rate in­ter­view, a se­nior White House of­fi­cial was more em­phatic, em­pha­siz­ing that Trump views South­east Asia as “the most ex­cit­ing com­po­nent” in an emerg­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion strat­egy for the broader Asia re­gion.

This of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe the president’s think­ing, pointed to the com­bined pop­u­la­tion of more than 600 mil­lion among the 10 mem­bers of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions and their fast-grow­ing economies as key rea­sons for sus­tained U.S. en­gage­ment.

The Trump aide jok­ingly re­ferred to the coun­tries as the “swing states of Asia.”

“This is a re­gion that is fairly firmly rooted in a lib­eral or­der,” the aide said. “Some of those coun­tries have — I wouldn’t call it a Jef­fer­so­nian democ­racy, but they’re fac­ing in that di­rec­tion. Burma is an amaz­ing suc­cess story that we want to build on.”

Yet the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to pro­duce a co­her­ent for­eign pol­icy strat­egy has alarmed mem­bers of Congress who fear Burma will be ne­glected or mis­han­dled as the White House fo­cuses on con­tain­ing North Korea’s mount­ing nu­clear weapons threat.

In his first meet­ing with Tiller­son, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) told him, “Don’t for­get about Burma,” ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the con­ver­sa­tion.

But McCon­nell, who helped shep­herd the U.S. eco­nomic sanc­tions that prod­ded Burma’s mil­i­tary regime to­ward changes, has been left try­ing to piece to­gether where the ad­min­is­tra­tion is headed from scant pub­lic or pri­vate sig­nals.

A Se­nate Repub­li­can lead­er­ship aide said that as the ad­min­is­tra­tion at­tempts to coax Bei­jing to do more to change North Korea’s be­hav­ior, it is un­clear where Burma, whose open­ing to the West was once viewed as a hedge against China’s eco­nomic and mil­i­tary mus­cle, fits in.

“It’s a work in progress,” the Se­nate aide said. “It’s go­ing to be slow go­ing.”

Ex­perts said South­east Asian cap­i­tals re­main wary of Trump’s mo­tives, even as they were en­cour­aged by his com­mit­ment to at­tend­ing the re­gional sum­mits.

“There’s a lot of con­cern over the way they’ve been en­gaged,” said Ernest Z. Bower, a South­east Asia an­a­lyst and busi­ness con­sul­tant af­fil­i­ated with the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

Of­fi­cials in the re­gion view Trump as “very trans­ac­tional,” Bower added, and they fear Trump is woo­ing them solely to build in­ter­na­tional sup­port for his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s push to fur­ther iso­late North Korea.

Mur­phy, the State Depart­ment of­fi­cial, said the South­east Asian rep­re­sen­ta­tives proac­tively raised the is­sue of North Korea in their meet­ing with Tiller­son.

“We have heard from coun­tries that they are tak­ing steps, look­ing at the size of North Korea’s di­plo­matic pres­ence and ac­tiv­i­ties and com­mer­cial trans­ac­tions,” Mur­phy said. “North Korea’s provo­ca­tions threaten the peace and pros­per­ity of the en­tire re­gion . . . . We think more can be done.”

But some ex­perts said the risk is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would re­duce the em­pha­sis on free speech and hu­man rights as it pur­sues se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, Trump in­vited President Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philip­pines, whose ad­min­is­tra­tion has over­seen a ruth­less ex­tra­ju­di­cial cam­paign that has killed thou­sands of sus­pected drug deal­ers, to visit the White House.

In Burma, the mil­i­tary, which re­tains 25 per­cent of the seats in par­lia­ment un­der the con­sti­tu­tion, has long had ties to North Korea, in­clud­ing buy­ing arms from Py­ongyang.

Erin Mur­phy, a for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial who ac­com­pa­nied then-Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton on a his­toric visit to Burma in 2011, said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could seek to boost ties with the Burmese mil­i­tary as lever­age against Py­ongyang, an ef­fort that could set back demo­cratic re­forms if not han­dled care­fully.

“If you want to put the screws on North Korea — and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has de­clared that a pol­icy pri­or­ity — you’d look at coun­tries that are part­ners,” she said. “And if you look at that list, you would see Myan­mar.”

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, cen­ter, meets with for­eign min­is­ters from South­east Asia in Washington on Thurs­day. The North Korean fo­cus of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Asia pol­icy has so far left other re­gional mat­ters, such as the sta­tus of the Burma project, un­ad­dressed.

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