Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reviving US-Myanmar Relations

When President Obama came to power, the US Government has taken the initiative to revive its relationship with Myanmar (Burma). After the US Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Campbell met Myanmar's Science and Technology Minister U Thant in New York, there is a possibility that President Obama might also meet with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein in November when Obama attends the APEC Summit to be held in Singapore in November. Meanwhile, we note that the junta government of Myanmar has also allowed western diplomats to meet with Myanmar's opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the imposition of sanctions on Myanmar.

Toward New Approach
The revival of US-Myanmar relationship is more than a symbol of the restoration of a new era of US policy on Myanmar. This new US-Myanmar relationship can have a far reaching impact on the establishment of a new order in Southeast Asia and the future development of Asia as a whole.

From former President George W. Bush to President Obama, in the formation of Asian policy, the US policy has always been focusing on maintaining US economic interest as well as to ensure a regional security balance to the advantage of the United States can be achieved in this part of the world.

Economic and Political Strategy Framework
The United States is very clear that the political and economic forces in East Asian countries, including China, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN as a group, are growing steadily. Such development is bound to have an impact on the new international economic order. As such the Obama administration is gradually developing a set of comprehensive East Asia and Pacific economic and political strategy framework with the ultimate aim to include the East Asian region into US-led Asia Pacific integration. The United States wants to use such a strategy to ensure that the US national interest and US influence in the East Asian region can be sustained. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the ASEAN Summit in Thailand, Hilary Clinton has already proclaimed in a high-profiled manner that 'The United States is back.' This is but a reflection of the concrete US Asian Pacific strategy that the United States is developing.

Myanmar is located at the gateway to Indo-Chinese peninsula, which is situated in an important strategic position. It is also adjacent to key ASEAN countries. The potential need of Myanmar for various types of infrastructure is extremely impressive. The potential consumer market for Myanmar's 57 million population can attract influx of businesses and enterprises from all countries in wanting to pour their investment in when the country is gradually opening up. Implicitly, there is also a tendency for Myanmar's economy to gradually emerging following the pattern of the economically success story of Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Myanmar also makes use of its potential economic conditions to develop closer political and economic cooperation with all ASEAN countries. It is also prepared to sign the ASEAN Charter of Human Rights in order to wipe the suspicion of the junta military government by the outside world.

Asia Pacific Strategy of US
For a long time, the United States cannot shake off its negative shadow about Myanmar when they think of the repressive human right record of the junta and the house arrest of Burmese freedom fight Aung San Suu Kyi. Therefore the relationship between the United States and Myanmar cannot be revived. But such delay in establishment diplomatic ties with Myanmar has affected the US enterprises that long have the intention to explore and develop the consumer market in Myanmar. As a matter of fact, faced with changing economic and political situation in Southeast Asia and Asia, the US government and businesses have long simmering with thought and proposal in wanting to revive the US ties with the present Myanmar Government.

If the junta Myanmar Government can move along the tide and gradually relax its political control on the movement of its political parties or to at least allow Aung San Suu Kyi to conditionally having some freedom to take part in political activities, we believe the US government will, based on the consideration of commercial interest, follow its 'Vietnam model' and relax its economic sanctions that have been imposed on the junta government of Myanmar for many years. This development will once again underscore the interest-led Asia Pacific strategy of the United States.

Malaysian businesses have long established certain degree of business operational base in Myanmar under the junta government's preferential trade policies. At present, Malaysia is one of the largest investors in Myanmar. Malaysia has already invested about US$1 billion in Myanmar including joint venture in offshore oil exploration, telecommunications and agriculture. Malaysia's investment in Myanmar exceeds US and European investors in Myanmar. We can anticipate that when the United States resumes diplomatic ties with Myanmar, US businesses will make massive inroad to Myanmar and thus catalyzing the development of a market economy in Myanmar. Such development should be to the advantage of Malaysian businesses that have already seized the trade opportunities and established their base in Myanmar earlier.

Improving Business System
However, when Myanmar resumes contacts with the United States and when US businesses begin to make inroads to Myanmar, the importance of Malaysia's economic contribution to Myanmar will relatively be reduced in the eyes of the Myanmar business sector. Such development might affect Malaysia's trading opportunities with Myanmar in the days to come.

There is a need for our Malaysian Government to do an in-depth assessment on impact of improved US-Myanmar ties on Malaysia. This is in addition to the fact that there are still many variable factors on how fast and how long the junta Myanmar's reform effort and its opening up policy can be sustained. In the past, a number of leading Malaysian business enterprises did suffer setback and resistance when they put in their money to invest in some key industries in Myanmar. This is another perspective Malaysia must include in its assessment of trade opportunities in Myanmar in the coming days.

Western Economic Sanctions
Faced with the ever-unpredictable situation in Myanmar, Malaysian Government should take full use of Malaysia's economic strength; and effectively integrate the private sector resources to intensify Malaysia's economic and trade ties with Myanmar using a variety of expedient means proactively and aggressively.

If Myanmar is able to gradually break away from the shackles of Western economic sanctions and gradually following the example of Vietnam in national development, we can predict that high speech development will happen to Myanmar. The main focus of economic development in Myanmar is on oil, fisheries, timber, and telecommunications. These fields are Malaysia's strength. The future Malaysia-Myanmar trade cooperation potential is not only great but also of mutual benefits.

Future Ahead
In this round of US action in trying to resume diplomatic ties with the junta Myanmar, both parties must treat such development carefully, especially on the side of the United States to avoid giving the junta an impression that the United States is attempting to control Myanmar.

However, overall, one cannot deny the fact that in this round of diplomatic exercise, the United States is undoubtedly the biggest winner. The improved US-Myanmar ties will also cast a long term and far reaching impact on the strategy situation in the East Asia Pacific region.

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