Taranaki Daily News
Myanmar crisis shows the limits of US influence
Nearly a decade ago, the United States was touting Myanmar as an American success story. The Obama Administration revelled in the restoration of civilian rule in the long-time pariah state as a top foreign policy achievement and a potential model for engaging with other adversaries, such as Iran and Cuba.
But today, Myanmar is once again an international outcast, facing a new wave of US sanctions. A coup has returned the military to power, and prodemocracy activists, reform advocates and journalists have been attacked and detained in a brutal crackdown.
The collapse is not the US’s fault, but it follows inconsistent efforts to nudge the Southeast Asian nation further towards democracy, enthusiasm for which was diminished by a systematic campaign of repression against Muslim minorities in the country’s north.
After years of robust diplomacy with Myanmar under President Barack Obama focused mainly on then-opposition leader and now jailed State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Trump Administration adopted a largely hands-off policy. It focused primarily on Myanmar’s strategic importance in the competition between the US and China for influence in the region.
Myanmar has become a reminder that, for all the hopefulness and anticipation of Obama administration officials – many of whom now serve in the Biden administration – there are limits to America’s ability to shape developments in another nation, particularly one so reclusive and far away.
The restoration of civilian rule in 2011 after six decades of dictatorship was partially the fruit of one of the Obama administration’s earliest attempts to reach out to a country long denounced by the US. Overtures to Iran and Cuba would come later, buoyed in part by what appeared to be success in Myanmar.
US sanctions were eased, diplomatic representation was bolstered, and aid increased. Obama made two trips to Myanmar, also known as Burma, as president, and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, each visited the country twice themselves.
It augured what many hoped would be a new beginning for Myanmar, whose military leaders were then ostensibly concerned about being overly reliant
on China for trade and security.
There was initial enthusiasm over the thaw, over Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi’s elevation to a leadership role despite being barred from running for office, and over Myanmar’s steady but hesitant opening of its once cloistered country.
But this soon faded, most notably over the government’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims, who became the target of a ruthless campaign of repression and abuse. Repeated entreaties to Suu Kyi and others on behalf of the Rohingya and other minorities went unheeded.
Still, the Obama Administration continued to have faith in
her. But it became rapidly consumed with the Iran nuclear deal and the normalisation of ties with Cuba, while also pursuing an illfated effort to forge an IsraeliPalestinian peace deal.
So Myanmar’s halting and imperfect democratisation was left largely untended by officials in Washington. When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration made no secret of the fact that it was focused less on bilateral ties than in concentrating on a broader effort to blunt China’s growing regional influence.
Since then, US attention to Myanmar has been sporadic, dominated primarily by public
expressions of disappointment in Suu Kyi, who defended the military crackdown on the Rohingya and opposed efforts to begin an international investigation into it.
Stirrings of the February 1 coup, coming as those elected in November 2020 elections won by Suu Kyi’s party were to take their seats in parliament, did not appear to be a priority in Washington, where officials were preoccupied by domestic political problems of their own.
‘‘There was a risk that the Burmese generals were playing us,’’ Clinton wrote about the 2010-11 rapprochement. That fear may have been prescient.