Andrew Selth is a Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute.
On 25 April, the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs examined US policy toward Burma. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held similar hearings the following day. Both heard testimony from officials and influential Burma-watchers.
Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and, in the minds of many, the chief architect of the Obama Administration's current approach to Burma, made a number of key points in his comments to the House Committee. These include the following:
1. With regard to the reforms made since March 2011 by President Thein Sein, the US believes that this 'nascent opening' is real and significant. In contrast to much of the commentary published to date, however, the US believes that this process is 'fragile and reversible'. As Hillary Clinton said on 4 April, 'the future of Burma is neither clear nor certain'.
2. The US welcomes the progress made in negotiations between Naypyidaw and Burma's various ethnic communities, but Washington remains concerned that 'the impact of Burma's reform efforts has not extended far beyond the capital and major cities'. The continued fighting in Kachin State and human rights violations against the Rohingya minority, for example, remain major concerns.
3. According to Campbell, much work remains to be done in Burma. 'The legacy of five decades of military rule — repressive laws, a pervasive security apparatus, a corrupt judiciary and media censorship — is still all too present'. This has prompted the Obama Administration to adopt a 'step-by-step process' toward the easing of economic sanctions. This approach is more measured than that which some other governments appear to be adopting.
4. The by-elections on 1 April, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 other members of the National League of Democracy were elected, were considered 'a significant step forward'. Despite some irregularities, the elections 'demonstrated a smooth and peaceful voting process'. Washington is hoping that current differences over the oath can be resolved soon so that the elected NLD members can take their seats and make a contribution to the parliamentary process.
5. The Burmese Government is proceeding with a strong program of economic reforms, including overdue changes to the exchange rate mechanism, but in Washington's view, allocations for the armed forces remained 'grossly disproportionate' at 16.5% of the (formal) budget. At 3.25% and 6.26% respectively, the allocations for health and education were still very low, but the US acknowledged that they were more than double previous levels.
6. Although Thein Sein has given assurances that Burma will observe relevant UNSC resolutions, the US remains 'troubled' by Burma's military trade with North Korea. This had the potential to 'impede progress in improving our bilateral ties'. Indeed, despite two rather non-committal US reports on the subject recently, Campbell described this as 'a top national security priority'.
7. In recent months, the US has appeared less concerned about Burma's 'nascent' nuclear research program. Campbell told the committee that the US welcomed assurances from senior officials that Burma had no intention of pursuing nuclear weapons. However, Washington continues to urge Naypyidaw to display greater transparency on non-proliferation issues, and to accede to a range of additional IAEA instruments.
Photo courtesy of the US State Department.