West will respond cautiously to Burma’s reforms

By Bob Herrera-Lim President Thein Sein’s government has started to implement some of the country’s most serious political reforms in a decade, but the West will regard the moves with considerable caution. The government has freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, tolerated more discussions of political and economic reform and suspended construction of a ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

By Bob Herrera-Lim

President Thein Sein's government has started to implement some of the country's most serious political reforms in a decade, but the West will regard the moves with considerable caution. The government has freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, tolerated more discussions of political and economic reform and suspended construction of a Chinese-funded dam due to domestic opposition over its environmental effects. These changes have generated optimism that relations between Burma and the West may thaw significantly in the near term, but a more cautious outlook is warranted. Real changes to U.S. sanctions legislation will take several years, assuming the current pace and trajectory of reform is maintained. In the meantime, the regime will continue with its priority of balancing political and social control with reforms.

The threshold for any formal change in U.S. sanctions policy is high and will likely require substantial accomplishments by the Burmese. Advances would be needed in the following areas: Release of the country's 2,000 political prisoners; ending ethnic minority conflict; allowing relatively free entry of humanitarian aid into the country; recognizing the opposition National League for Democracy and allowing it to freely contest elections and; breaking ties with North Korea and abandoning any nuclear weapons program.

By Bob Herrera-Lim

President Thein Sein’s government has started to implement some of the country’s most serious political reforms in a decade, but the West will regard the moves with considerable caution. The government has freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, tolerated more discussions of political and economic reform and suspended construction of a Chinese-funded dam due to domestic opposition over its environmental effects. These changes have generated optimism that relations between Burma and the West may thaw significantly in the near term, but a more cautious outlook is warranted. Real changes to U.S. sanctions legislation will take several years, assuming the current pace and trajectory of reform is maintained. In the meantime, the regime will continue with its priority of balancing political and social control with reforms.

The threshold for any formal change in U.S. sanctions policy is high and will likely require substantial accomplishments by the Burmese. Advances would be needed in the following areas: Release of the country’s 2,000 political prisoners; ending ethnic minority conflict; allowing relatively free entry of humanitarian aid into the country; recognizing the opposition National League for Democracy and allowing it to freely contest elections and; breaking ties with North Korea and abandoning any nuclear weapons program.

Even if the government is sincere, there is no easy path to the major reforms Washington wants and the lifting of U.S. sanctions. Other Western nations may be willing to relax some of these requirements, but satisfying the more difficult prerequisites (primarily the release of prisoners and ending ethnic conflict) will take time. The regime will continue to move ahead gradually in reform and liberalization, but given the contentious political environment in the United States, the end of sanctions will be a long time coming and would also require support from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suspicions about the Burmese regime’s intentions are well based. The announced reforms are consistent with a plan initiated at least two years ago, and probably signal a calculated move by Burma’s leaders, not a break with the past. Many of the regime’s opponents believe that any changes from the current government are designed to secure the generals’ long term control.

Burma also has a strong track record of rolling back or delaying reforms. In 2004, political infighting led to the ouster of a relatively reformist prime minister and little movement on the so-called roadmap to democracy that the regime had crafted in an attempt to boost its credibility with Washington. Also, the former junta leader, Than Shwe released political prisoners on several occasions (1992, 2004, and 2005), but did nothing else.

Still, even though the end of sanctions may be unlikely, the reforms could boost informal Western engagement with Burma, and perhaps reinforce the change in the regime’s behavior.

Bob Herrera-Lim is a director with Eurasia Group’s Asia practice

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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