Myanmar used to have hostile relations with nearly every nation except China.
But with startling swiftness, the government of President U Thein Sein has begun a process of political reformation and diplomacy that resulted in the United States restoring full diplomatic relations with the country last week.
“One of the lessons from this experience is that change can often take a great deal of time, and you can’t always predict when political opening are going to take place,” said Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.
Schwartz, who traveled to Myanmar twice in previous roles as assistant secretary of state and special assistant to the president for national security affairs, added that the abrupt change “is part of the justification in sustaining pressure even when the results of those efforts aren’t going to be apparent in the near-term.”
The pressure began after Myanmar’s military junta cracked down, and killed, protesters in 1988.
When the government rejected the results of a 1990 parliamentary election won by a party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize three years later, President George H.W. Bush downgraded diplomatic relations.
The efforts to pressure Myanmar (previously called Burma) spanned the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Last week’s breakthrough shows the benefits of a bipartisan approach to foreign policy.
The resumption of relations doesn’t mean that Myanmar’s reformation is complete.
Indeed, far from it: There are still many political leaders languishing in prisons, despite last week’s release of 651 prisoners, including some prominent members of the “88 Generation Students,” who had led protests against the repressive regime.
But there are encouraging signs: Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, and her party will be allowed to take part in parliamentary elections scheduled for this April.
And Thein Sein’s government also signed a ceasefire agreement with Karen rebels who have long fought for greater autonomy.
The international isolation clearly helped convince Myanmar’s rulers to change. But along with the stick came some carrot
“The regime understands that they would not be able to break completely out of their isolation, and therefore not provide the economic benefits to their people, without some sort of political changes,” Schwartz said.
He added that, “Just as important is the regime’s perception of the United States and others to engage and improve relationships if the regime was prepared to take measures in the direction of political reform.”
As efforts to change behaviors in rogue regimes in Iran and Syria continue, the lessons of Myanmar may be especially helpful.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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