US POLICY AT ASIA’S STRATEGIC CROSSROADS: AFTER THE 2015 ELECTIONS IN BURMA
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On November 8, 2015, Burma’s first credible elections in 25 years welcomed a promising democratic change: the handover of power from a government led by the military to one led by a popularly elected, former opposition political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). This report examines many of the challenges still facing Burma, as well as the diplomatic and assistance-related tools the United States can use to mitigate those challenges and ensure progress toward liberalization and democratization. We have aimed to answer two key questions: 1. What has the United States done right in the last four years in its relationship with Burma? 2. What are the concrete steps that can be taken through diplomacy and foreign assistance to support the emergent, democratically-elected government? US policies have been credited for their role in ensuring continued momentum in the many Burmese reform processes currently underway. Peter Popham, a long-time critic of Myanmar’s leaders, wrote in the Independent on February 2016 that Burma’s “transformation is substantially Obama’s doing” (Popham 2016). In this regard, the United States plays a critical role in ensuring that Burma continues on this path of reform. More importantly, Burma’s location in the heart of the Asia Pacific region, bordering India, China and Thailand as well as facing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, is strategically critical for future US engagement in the region. Southeast Asia remains a favored region for American businesses, and Burma is a largely untapped market brimming with resources and opportunities for US economic interests. Moreover, Burma’s remarkably smooth electoral process and transition of power offers the Obama Administration a final opportunity to showcase its successful re-engagement in Asia and to cast itself as a champion for the American ideals of democracy and justice. Over the next eleven months, the United States can support and foster unprecedented progress for the people of Burma through a series of policies that could become paramount to the legacy of the current administration. US policy toward Burma has historically been exclusionary and hostile in an attempt to cripple the former military junta. President Obama’s 2011 decision to adopt an action-for-action strategy has proved effective in incentivizing political reform, opening Burma to US businesses, initiating academic exchanges through the Fulbright program, cultivating youth leadership through Youth South East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) initiatives, and stimulating significant policy changes through collaborative efforts between various Burmese, US, and international organizations. In continuing with that model, the recent election stands as a signal that Burma is ready and interested in further engagement with the United States and the wider international community. It is important to note that Burma’s democratization and commitment to international human rights standards remain incomplete in their development; the long journey ahead must be navigated through calculated measures and with focus on the remaining year for the Obama Administration, as well as the future of the region thereafter. With this in mind, this report presents policy recommendations for expanded US-Burmese relations over the remaining course of Obama’s presidency. The challenges to be faced and recommended US policies are outlined as follows.
- SIS 495 Task Force