Why U.S. should be all in with Myanmar
U.S. coordinator for policy on Myanmar, Derek Mitchell (left) pictured with Myanmar President Thein Sein.
July 16th, 2012
04:50 PM ET

Why U.S. should be all in with Myanmar

Editor’s note: Patrick Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

By Patrick Cronin, Special to CNN

Myanmar’s nascent liberalization is at a critical juncture. In the next few months we will know whether or not President Thein Sein’s attempt to transform his country from pariah state ruled by a junta to a normal, functioning state of almost 60 million people will succeed.

The record so far is impressive. Since assuming power early last year after what admittedly appeared to be rigged elections, Thein Sein has surprised observers. He has reached out to Aung San Suu Kyi, now free from house arrest and seated in parliament, and restored multiparty politics. He's determined to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire, putting at least a pause if not an end to the almost ethnic conflicts that have bedeviled the country for decades. And his team is trying to design a strategic framework for replacing a kleptocratic economy long mismanaged by generals. However imperfect Thein Sein’s administration, it nonetheless represents Myanmar’s best chance for a better future. 

But he’s working against the odds. The sheer scale of transformation and remaining challenges (including his frail health) heighten fears that Myanmar will fall back into the clutches of the armed forces. The military seized power by coup d’état in 1962 and have refused to relinquish it. The Constitution still guarantees the military 25% of the legislature, and he is believed to face considerable opposition within his own ranks. Protests over recent electricity shortages in the old capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and the northern city of Mandalay show the people’s impatience:  popular support for his reforms could be extinguished as suddenly as lights in a blackout.  And Myanmar’s crackdown on stateless Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State may sap international support.

Thein Sein’s Cabinet shakeup this past week should thus be seen as an effort to breathe new life into the flagging momentum behind his reform agenda.

Some believe that reform has been set back by the replacement of one hard-line vice president with another. While many welcomed the departure of Tin Aung Myint Oo, seen as an obstacle to major policy reform, they are portraying his successor, Myint Swe, as insufficiently committed to change. Yet this view is overdrawn.  Swapping one hard-line vice president for another isn’t good news, but it’s premature to sound the death knell for reform.  While Myint Swe has indeed been a top enforcer for erstwhile dictator Than Shwe, his elevation is a reminder that the military has been and remains the most likely spoiler unless it is brought into the reform process.

When considering the role of the military, we would do well to remember that there has never been a guarantee that the armed forces will keep to their barracks. Provided the armed forces see the country advancing toward greater peace and prosperity, and provided their core interests aren’t suddenly put at risk, they are likely to remain at bay.  What Washington should draw from this latest appointment is this: the military are stakeholders, too.  Engaging the gradual rise of professional security forces (including police) needs to be a major part of comprehensive engagement with Myanmar. Indeed, encouraging liberalization from a junta can hardly avoid constructively working with the remnants of the old, distasteful regime. There’s no viable alternative.

Myanmar’s military status quo raises the stakes for Thein Sein’s inner circle of reformers, including his top Cabinet allies – Industry Minister U Soe Thein and Rail Transportation Minister U Aung Min – each of whom are poised to assume more critical positions. Soe Thein is taking control of the powerful Finance Ministry and Aung Min is assuming a new post within the Office of the President, presumably increasing his authority to implement a national peace-making roadmap. Both are reform enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, in recent months, country after country has announced the suspension of sanctions against Myanmar. In May, weeks after the previously outlawed National League for Democracy won 43 of 44 seats contested parliamentary seats, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would also suspend sanctions.  After some prolonged interagency debate, the administration is following through on this pledge, paving the way for U.S. investment, including in the nation’s vitally important extractive industries.

In doing so, the administration is neither being gulled into romantic notions about Myanmar, nor caving into a powerful energy lobby.  Rather, it is a matter of pragmatism and priority. Most of Myanmar’s wealth is tied up in extractive industries, from oil and gas to timber, gems and gold.  In the oil and gas sector, there’s no alternative to dealing with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. Avoiding engagement in one of Myanmar’s most significant sectors would not only put U.S. business at a disadvantage, but, far more importantly, would provide a free pass to less-accountable foreign companies.  Ultimately, it’s a question about how seriously the United States wants to try to help Myanmar’s reforms succeed, which will depend in part on America’s ability to help Myanmar to develop economically

The rest of the world is already investing in Myanmar, starting with its extractive industries. American standards, laws, and institutions for overcoming corruption, while far from perfect, are among the best in the world for helping to shape Myanmar’s new governance and economy. As one Irish investment banker told me during my recent trip to Myanmar, “You Americans will never make it here, not with your Foreign Corrupt Practices Act!”  Well it’s precisely because the United States has a Foreign Corrupt Practice Act that the United States should be “all in” rather than attempt to straddle the fence with respect to Thein Sein’s efforts.

The tradeoff for engaging in a sector prone to rampant corruption should be far greater reporting requirements as the U.S. administration has called for. It can meet human rights groups half way by going even further, however. Moving forward, both the U.S. government and private sector should press Thein Sein to abide by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative as part of the price of doing business with the United States. Companies can immediately start providing capacity-building support to prepare Myanmar becoming a signatory to this international sunshine policy. Strenuous and transparent reporting in the oil and gas sector could thus reinforce better governance in Myanmar, whereas ignoring this lucrative sector would likely predetermine the failure of reform.

While Aung San Suu Kyi irked her government over criticisms about investment in Myanmar, the United States will be better off choosing partners in joint ventures on the ground in the country rather than relegating itself to the sidelines of a rapidly changing Myanmar. Thein Sein has taken remarkable steps, and now it’s up to the United States not to equivocate but reciprocate and support a reforming, if flawed government, and a largely forgotten people.

Washington can only have leverage in Myanmar if it’s fully committed and vested.  Consider, after all, that Myanmar’s neighbors are transforming the country and will exert far greater impact. China and India’s massive infrastructure projects alone are redrawing the map of Asia and assuring China unprecedented overland access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean and India unparalleled access to its remote northeastern states.

Despite widespread desire for an irreversible trend, the odds are stacked against transformation, at least one not marred by serious setbacks.  But for the United States, which has shifted from the leader of sanctions to principled engagement, there should be only one bold policy: full speed ahead to support reform, preempt spoilers, and remain steadfast in support of a long-term gradual transformation.  Such a policy requires suspending all sanctions in exchange for tightening reporting requirements and greater transparency.  It also requires comprehensive engagement, including direct and indirect means of engaging the armed forces (including the largely untainted middle-officer corps) and the police.  Engagement on the security sector should make long-term reform the top priority.

Removed from its isolation, energized by a more free market and democratic system, Myanmar can over the next decade become a new center of gravity in Asia. As others have pointed out, it is geographically at the crossroads of Southeast, South and East Asia, and it remains rich in natural resources. But with weak institutions and limited capacity, Myanmar has the very real potential for either succumbing to corruption and the proverbial resource curse or lapsing back into military oppression.  The steps taken to help Myanmar over the next few months won’t guarantee successful reform; but failure by the United States to fully embrace reform-minded actors in Myanmar will surely doom the country’s chances of breaking out of its half-century-long vicious circle.

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Topics: Asia • Myanmar • United States

soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. mingalaba


    July 16, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  2. Marine5484

    I see that the right-wing thugs in Washington are now horning their way into Myanmar, hoping to run things there eventually as in most other places. Their greed knows no limits!

    July 16, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • kake79

      Yes, Hillary Clinton is a total right-wing thug... get her! *waves pitchfor*

      /sarc off

      July 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  3. Nawaf

    Please CNN, focus your attention on the massacres against human beings in Maynmar (Burma). More info about the thousands of people killed in cold blood could be found in the link below or by a google search. Please, don't turn away from the sad truth.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:37 am | Reply
    • Mg Mg Wint

      Wrong figures and wrong massage

      July 18, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • steven

      Wrong. First image is that Rohingya refugees begging Bangladeshi authorities to allow them come to shore in Bangladesh side of border.
      The second image nothing to do with Rohingyas.
      Fake ethnic, fake images, fake information... shame shame shame...

      July 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Kim

      Inciting violence with fake news and fake pictures isn't a good way. Instigating Muslim world to call Jihad to Burma and terrorize its peacefully living people with fake news is shameful.

      if you open the link , you will find the truth.


      July 22, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  4. Patrick

    After a lack of progress during a military rule, change has arrived in Myanmar. The military is still in charge but the military leadership is moving the country away from despotism speedily. President U Thein Sein, a former military member, is introducing democracy. He has released political prisoners including the popular Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. President U Thein Sein is even opening up the economy.
    The only reason Nawaf if speaking up is due to the perceived negative effect on Muslim who want to see the country under Sharia law. The country is largely Budhist but the muslim minority is invading the country as required by the Qu'ran. When the muslims are pushed away, albeit as violently as the muslim's actions, the muslims start screaming genocide.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
  5. unitedwinintl

    @Nawaf, I'm from Myanmar. I went to your facebook link and they are all fake. They even posted the dead body of Myanmar buddhist monk from September 2007 and claim as Myanmar muslim. Please do homework before you post it. Lucky President Thein Sein is in charge.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • gunfun

      So, the Rohingya's are allowed citizenship and aren't oppressed or being ethnically cleansed as reported by the IPS and other news agencies? It's all just a big conspiracy against Burma?

      July 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
      • nina

        Hundreds of Islamic hardliners protested outside the Myanmar embassy in the Indonesian capital Jakarta last Friday to "stop the genocide" of Rohingya Muslims in the wake of deadly communal unrest.

        Around 300 hardliners from organisations, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), threatened to storm the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta as some 50 police officers guarded the building.

        "If embassy officials refuse to talk with us, I demand all of you break into the building and turn it upside down," a leader on a loudspeaker told protesters, who shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest).

        "Every drop of blood that is shed from a Muslim must be paid back. Nothing is free in this world," the man shouted, as protesters carried banners that read "FPI is ready to wage jihad".

        "Go to Myanmar and carry out jihad for your Muslim brothers," the man said.

        July 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
      • steven

        No. They are not. I am saying again. No, They are not.
        If you judge a matter, you better look from both sides.
        In the recent event, both sides had much damaged – properties, lifes and most of all, trustee on each other. Please stop biased comments.
        They are getting problems not because of they are Muslims, it was because they are intruders, invadors.
        I have a lot of Muslim friends in there living peacefully with other citizens.
        More than that, in Rakhine state we have different echnic groups and one of them is called 'Kaman'. Majority of the Kaman peoples are Muslims who are living with Rakhines for many many years. We always accept them as our national. And, believe me, Kaman guys never have married these so called "Rohingya".

        Know this, Burmese people do not have problem for somrbody saying "Allah is great". They are having problem only because a Bangladeshi group so called "Rohingya" are invading their own country.

        I am proud to say that, for your record, we had great Muslims in our history.. and we are still having great Muslims in our country.


        July 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
      • Kim

        Apparently, their ulterior motive is to persuade the whole Muslim world as well as other people out of their sympathy to support Rohingya-Bengali invasion to Arakan and wiping local Arakanese Rakhine, Mro , Thet , Daing Net, Marma and Kaman off from their ancestral land. The incentive is to islamise the Rakhine( Arakan) State.

        Here is the link in which a moderate Muslim explained about the Rohingya-Bengali's fake news spreading in their Muslim world with references. Thanks to him.


        July 22, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  6. Lee

    It will Brainwashed American . Read my real analysis .The Furtive facts of Burma.
    By Lee Xpress
    Western countries are going to Burma leaving all economic sanctions for natural resource butin western propaganda machine termed their rush to resume business is for the current political development . Here is twoimportant facts that why does west see political development there and will west invade Burma for natural resource ? No . Military government in Burmais corrupted. Staying at power is their real aim. Country, people are nothing . Thats why despot has allowed west to steal natural resource . The criminal government know that if west is not allowed to steal natural resource , it will result military invasion . Human rights , Democracy freedom are great excuse to do so . The sectarian assualt on muslim is not enough to think that There is no political development there but west see political development as government allowed to steal wealth. And so called noble peace prize winner Su ki. She has inclined her head to west for her own interest. West will use su ki to displace people from the area where natural resource will be founded . Without her , bloodshedwill be happened . Because no amount ofmoney can satisfy local people to leave their home where their predecessors lived . It is nature of south Asian . For Su ki it will be so easy task to displace people.Because she is popular and people in this area are loyal topolitical figure like Su ki. In poor country politics depend on food prize as people are not aware except for a few . But Burma produce enough food domestically , even during Tsunami they did not import any food . So food prize is so low that everyone can buy . It is the reasonof why military government is at power for four decades . It will take another four decades to revolt against the current political system . Even all Buddha religious leader had striked for a change but failed. Western greed is such that they also stress on our bangladeshi goverment to export our limited Gas while now we have to import Gas

    July 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Stop trying to blame "Western greed" for every situation created by islamists.

      July 17, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply

      Well put, Lee. Thank you.

      July 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
      • nina

        What did Lee say that was "well said"?

        July 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  7. nina

    Even Suu kyi is unsure if Rohingyas are myanmar nationals or muslim invaders from Bangladesh. However, even Bangladesh returned a boatload of Rohingyas stating that they were a "troublesome cult. "

    July 17, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Mg Mg Wint

      Suu kyi is sure that Rohingyas are muslim invaders from Bangladesh.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:45 am | Reply
    • steven

      Can you believe that? How come – how come Bangladesh government itself drove away its own Muslim citizens from Bangladesh.
      Such a shame..

      July 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  8. Mramma

    About the violence happened on June 8th, 2012.

    After Friday prayer, which was organised by a high-level UN local official, who is also local elite Muslim leader, on June 8th, 2012, Bengali Muslims (mostly youth and adult men) gathered outside of their mosque. Then they started shouting and running along the streets of Buthidaung and Maungdaw towns and; throwing stones and damaging minorities properties. This was how riots and arsons are started. In this part of Arakan aka Rakhine, Buthidaung and Maungdaw have the largest Muslims population, which is a FACT. They are the MAJORITY there. Rakhines and other local people are MINORITIES. So This accounts for current happening.

    Throughout history, How Bengali migrates into Burma? There are 3 major occurrences (1) Brought them in by British to employ them as seasonal workers before 1948 (2) Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, Bengali Muslims were War Refugees fleeing into Burma and India (8-10 millions, mostly Bengali Hindus, recorded in India) away from Pakistani (formerly West Pakistan) Army's atrocities. (3) Recent border crossers and economics and natural diasters migrants.

    There are so many Muslims living peacefully inside Burma. Related to the region, Burma even recognize one of Muslim ethnic called Kaman, descendant of archers in Arakan Rakhine Kingdom. Chittagong was included in Rakhine Kingdom until Mughal invasion 1666. Since that time Muslims population was growing from Bengal.

    For past decades Bengali Muslims' atrocities are widespread throughout Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, and currently in Buthidaung-Maungdaw of Rakhine State. You can look it up at PCJSS-cht . org

    So Please don't confuse and mislead the real situation. Rakhine are Minority in that turmoil area. And Jumma People (Mro, Chakma, Marma and Rakhain of Chittagong, info at JummaPeopleNetwork UK ) are Minorities of CHT. They are the constant victims of Bengali Muslims. Rohingya is a word claimed by machiavellian opportunists which always associated with Jamaat-e-Islami. They are for IslamoFascism. check this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlkzxxF4q5s

    Thanks for reading.

    July 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
    • nina

      I beg to differ but there are no "peaceful" muslim.
      Either they are out for blood to feed allah dracula or they do not say or do anything to protect the innocent.

      July 17, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
      • shawnpwright

        Ma'am, kindly get your facts straight. There are well over one billion Muslims in the world. If none were peaceful, then the so-called "free world" would have been conquered a long time ago.

        July 18, 2012 at 3:42 am |
      • Angel

        shawnpwright – if you are correct then why is there so much violence in the world thanks to "peaceful" muslims?

        July 18, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  9. eroteme

    Have we had enough of this Myanmar? I watched C-Span's coverage of Suu Kyi speaking before Parliament in London, she mentioned Burma over a dozesn times. She did not mention Myanmar once.

    July 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
    • nina

      Listen again but this time take the camel steak out of your ears.

      July 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  10. Solo

    We have NO business being a part of this, but as usual the U.S. thinks it has time and money to invest.

    July 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  11. king.tut

    By the way, according to Bangladeshi Nationality Law (1972), Bengali outside of Bangladesh are still Bangladesh's citizen through 'Jus sanguinis'.

    "every person shall be deemed to be a citizen of Bangladesh – (i) who or whose father or grandfather was born in the territories now comprised in Bangladesh and who was a permanent resident to such territories on the 25th day of March, 1971, and continues to be so resident, resident, or (ii) who was a permanent resident of the territories now comprised in Bangladesh on the 25th day of March, 1971 and continues to be so resident and is not otherwise disqualified for being a citizen by or under any law for the time being in force; "

    This is the main clause from that order of the law. Whoever running away from Bangladesh Liberation War (1971) and who did not go back before "25th day of March, 1971" could not claim automatic citizenship. That's is how most Bengali outside of Bangladesh become stateless. But they still have hope and if they are not naive, they are still Bangladesh citizen through bloodline.


    Bangladesh is turning a blind eye and brainwashing poor Bengali people to claim as "Rohingya". This is Bangladesh's the greatest "Rohingya Scam". If you want to know more about Bengali people, check this videos.

    July 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • shwe

      It is worth of reading from a greatly knowledged historian.
      I am impressed.

      July 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • Ba Yint Naung

      That's the truth and well put.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  12. Huckleberry

    The bottom line is that the entire string of nations bordering India is struggling. India is the largest nation in that area and the most medieval. It is dragging everyone down and is bad karma. I dont have hopes for Myanmar because India will pull it down.

    July 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  13. SouthernCelt

    Here's an idea...Isolationism had a following before WWII, let's go back to it and the the World take care of itself until our own "house" is in order.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  14. SouthernCelt

    Here's an idea...Isolationism had a following before WWII, let's go back to it and let the World take care of itself until our own "house" is in order.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • Ben

      If you're going to cite a past precedent, it might help your case if you didn't cite one that was a spectacular failure that no thinking person would ever advocate repeating. I'm just saying.

      July 17, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  15. xfiler93

    we have too many problems here. instead of sending billions to countries that hate us, let us use that money for our own good.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Reply
  16. j. von hettlingen

    Let's hope that Thein Sein would keep his pledge to Hilary Clinton during their last meeting in Cambodia that he would manage his country's expected new wealth in a responsible fashion and share it among its people. Indeed we have seen rampant corruption and civil wars in many African countries, which shows that natural resources can be more as a curse than a blessing.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:46 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      by Urs Knoblauch,Switzerland

      Maintaining peaceful coexistence among peoples and ensuring world peace belong to the most essential cultural tasks of mankind.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  17. danoj

    This killings and massacres have to be stopped, if the US made the genocide of the Kurds an excuse to invade Iraq it has to use all available means to stop the ethnic cleaning of millions of Muslims in Burma. Boycott,sanctions media awareness all have to be used to stop this bloodshed.

    December 14, 2012 at 4:08 am | Reply

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