Obstacles Remain to Improved U.S. Relations with Myanmar

By Greg Poling

Secretary Clinton meets Burmese President U Thein Sein. Normalized U.S. relations with Myanmar still face numerous challenges. Source: U.S. Department of State flickr photostream.

Despite recent progress, many barriers still remain in place to improved American relations with Myanmar. Throughout her recent groundbreaking trip, Secretary Clinton emphasized that Myanmar still has a lot of work to do before U.S. sanctions can be lifted and relations normalized. She stressed the need for the government to release its remaining political prisoners, end ongoing violence against ethnic minorities, and cut off all military relations with North Korea. While these issues will be difficult to resolve, Myanmar’s leaders addressed each of them during Clinton’s visit.

Speaker Thura Shwe Mann said he told Clinton that the government will work to ensure that “all citizens including political prisoners” can take part in rebuilding the country. President Thein Sein told her that the government is currently looking into ways to release remaining political prisoners. These statements, while vague and unsatisfying, are promising steps for a government that has long denied the existence of political prisoners.

Violent conflicts between the army and ethnic minority groups have plagued the country for decades. Government officials assured Clinton that they are pursuing cease-fire talks with 10 ethnic groups with the goal of a lasting peace and political participation by all. There have been confirmed talks between government representatives and Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karenni, and Karen groups in recent months. The government has already signed cease-fires this year with the Mongla, United Wa State Army, and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. As if to underscore its stated commitment to ending the violence, the government announced a preliminary cease-fire with the Shan State Army-South on the last day of Clinton’s visit.

The final obstacle to improving U.S.-Myanmar relations is the long-time suspicion of military ties between Myanmar and North Korea. Worries among U.S. officials were heightened when a North Korean ship was intercepted on May 26 en route to Myanmar. After several days of diplomatic pressure and a standoff at sea, the ship returned to North Korea without incident, but it was widely believed to be carrying ballistic missiles in violation of UN sanctions.

More troubling have been suspicions that Myanmar has cooperated with Pyongyang on the development of nuclear weapons. President Thein Sein assured Clinton that his country will in the future uphold UN Resolutions 1718 and 1874 restricting the transfer of military technology from North Korea and that it is “strongly considering” signing an additional protocol from the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent the proliferation of nuclear technology.

Thura Shwe Mann admitted that his country had signed a military cooperation agreement with North Korea in the past, but he denied that any nuclear cooperation was involved. He said, “The U.S. has a very good intelligence system. It has not only people intelligence but also intelligence satellites. When I went to North Korea as a general in the past, the U.S. knew about it. It knows what we were doing.”

Gregory Poling is a Research Assistant with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Gregory Poling

Gregory Poling

Mr. Gregory B. Poling is a Fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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