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Commentary: Tillerson will have inconvenient conversations in Myanmar

Channel NewsAsia
By Professor  

In the lead-up to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Myanmar, Jindal School of International Affairs' Nehginpao Kipgen says the top US diplomat’s conversations with Myanmar leaders will centre on three issues.

NEW DELHI: As part of his six-nation trip to Asia, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Myanmar on Nov 15 where he will meet with Myanmar’s senior government leaders and ostensibly discuss issues concerning the Rohingya crisis and the country’s democratic transition.

Taking 10 months for the top US diplomat to visit the country seems like a long time, when US-Myanmar ties have warmed significantly under Barack Obama who had visited Myanmar twice during his 8 year in the White House.

Despite significant international attention arising from the Rohingya crisis, observers say the Trump administration has paid only scant attention to the situation in Rakhine state and to Myanmar.

POTENTIAL FOR SANCTIONS

Tillerson’s visit comes at a time when the Trump administration is considering formally declaring the crackdown on Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims as a case of ethnic cleansing.

The Trump Administration has come under great pressure from members of the US Congress calling for the re-imposition of sanctions against the Myanmar military.

US officials are preparing a recommendation for the top diplomat to define the Myanmar military-led campaign against the Rohingya in the aftermath of attacks on Myanmar’s security posts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) as ethnic cleansing.

Many in the international community, including the United Nations, have condemned the ARSA attacks and expressed concerns over the military’s clearance operations, seeing it as a disproportionate military campaign which has reportedly forced out over six hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims from their homes in Rakhine state.

A bipartisan bill, introduced by US lawmakers on the eve of President Trump’s departure on his longest and first foreign trip to Asia, seeks to re-impose some sanctions lifted last year by the Obama administration.

If implemented, the targeted sanctions, which includes trade, visa and financial restrictions on Myanmar military officials, will prevent Washington from supplying assistance to the Myanmar military until perpetrators of atrocities against the Rohingya in western Rakhine state are held accountable.

Tillerson’s visit is expected to assess and understand a better picture of whether or not the US should term the Myanmar’s military operations as ethnic cleansing.

Tillerson is expected to tell the Myanmar government that it should allow the refugees to return at the earliest possible and that the government must provide all basic necessities, such as food, shelter and security.

MYANMAR’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION

The second important issue Tillerson is likely to touch on is Myanmar’s democratic transition; he will urge the Myanmar leadership, civilian as well as the military, to push forward the country’s democratisation process.

Though the National League for Democracy (NLD) government has significant control over the day-to-day administration of the country and a significant majority in the national parliament, it has no control over the military institution, which functions independently.

Among others, the Myanmar military controls all security-related ministries in the government - home, defense and border affairs, the National Defence and Security Council, as well as 25 per cent of seats in all legislatures of the country.

For example, during the clearance operations in Rakhine state, the military took complete control of the entire operations, which included alleged killings, burning down of villages and rape.

The top US diplomat is expected to offer both carrots and sticks during his visit.

While he will say that the US government is ready to extend all possible assistance to the Myanmar government in addressing the Rohingya crisis as well as the country’s democratisation process, he is also likely to hint to Myanmar leadership the possibility that sanctions may be re-imposed.

If sanctions are reintroduced, they may not only create inconveniences between Washington and Naypyidaw but trigger internal tensions between the Myanmar military and the civilian government.

A NORTH KOREA FACTOR?

The third issue which Tillerson is likely to bring up is the alleged connections Myanmar shares with North Korea, and seek assurances that Myanmar, especially the military leadership, does not maintain links with North Korea. Since the Thein Sein government, Myanmar has assured the US that it has no military ties with Pyongyang.

As the former Than Shwe-led military regime was believed to have contacts with Pyongyang, it is important for Washington to hear this reaffirmation from the Myanmar leadership. Given rising tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in recent weeks, the US will see this as a crucial issue.

As the primary focus of Tillerson’s visit pertains to the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, there is the possibility of both positive and negative outcomes.

To prevent US-Myanmar relations from deteriorating, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also the country’s foreign minister, will try to explain and convince the Trump Administration about the challenges her NLD government faces. It remains to be seen if the Trump administration will listen to Suu Kyi, who still enjoys significant bipartisan support in the US congress.

Meanwhile, it is also important to understand the limitations the State Counsellor faces under the hybrid political regime, enshrined in the 2008 constitution.

It is unlikely that Suu Kyi will take actions that could potentially offend the country’s military leadership and the sentiments of the overwhelming majority population of the country who consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh who have overstayed their welcome and grown to worrying numbers.

It is also important to understand that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer a democratic icon or political activist she used to be during the years of her pro-democracy movement or house arrest.

She is now a pragmatic politician who wants to remain in power now and in the foreseeable future, and has to reflect the views of her country’s people.

Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the O P Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratisation of Myanmar. A version of this commentary also appeared in the Hindustan Times.