With the presidential election in the United States getting nearer, there is one country where the outcome could have far-reaching consequences: Myanmar.
Donald Trump has not said anything noteworthy about Southeast Asia, but Hillary Clinton, who is leading in the polls, is a close friend of Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi. There is not doubt that Clinton would feel more comfortable dealing with her than the generals who now rule America’s traditional ally in the region, Thailand.
Myanmar’s drift away from its previously close economic, political and military relationship with China – and the Thai government’s increasingly close ties with Beijing – opens the possibility of a new strategic partner for the US in the region.
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As the writer Andrew Kaspar wrote in The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar-based online publication, in July 2014: “In Hard Choices, a 656-page tome in which Clinton recalls her visits to countries around the world, an entire chapter is devoted to [Myanmar], the only Asia-Pacific nation other than China to be afforded such prominence.”
Or, in Clinton’s own words: “While the Arab Spring was losing its lustre in the Middle East, Burma was giving the world new hope that it is indeed possible to transition peacefully from dictatorship to democracy.”
Although many would argue that the transition is far from complete – the military still controls the most important ministries and can block proposed changes to the highly undemocratic 2008 constitution – Clinton nevertheless sees Myanmar as a main success story during her time as Secretary of State. It was “America at our best,” Clinton wrote.
By contrast, the US has had to limit its interactions with the Thai government following the military takeover in May 2014. Under the Foreign Assistance Act, the US is obliged to cut aid to countries in which an elected government is deposed by force.
In order to live up to its laws, the US had to condemn the coup but took only token steps such as the suspension of its paltry US$3.5 million in military aid to Thailand, the cutting short of a naval exercise underway at the time, and the suspension of a police training programme.
Thailand is, after all, a country that the US cannot completely ignore. The two countries were formal partners in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation from its inception in 1954 to when it was dissolved in 1977.
During the Indochina War, Thailand was used as a base for American bombings of North Vietnam, and the US had bases in the country until 1976. Washington still sees Thailand as a military partner and, despite the coup, the annual Cobra Gold exercise – which includes the armies, navies and air forces of US partners in the region – went ahead this year.
But, at the same time, Thailand has increased its military cooperation with China. In May this year, for instance, the Thai and Chinese navies held a joint exercise codenamed Blue Strike off the coast of Thailand. And, this month, Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong was denied entry into Thailand in a move almost certainly meant to please Beijing.
There can be little doubt that the Thai military is moving closer to China and edging away from its previous cosy relationship with the US. The military is likely to remain the most powerful political force in the country in the era of transition and uncertainty that Thailand has entered following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13.
Developments in Myanmar are pointing in the opposite direction. Myanmar has been an observer at Cobra Gold since 2013, US military officers have visited the country’s military academies and, on May 9 this year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy said that while the US would not establish conventional bilateral relations with Myanmar’s armed forces – the US did “need to open a relationship”.
After the Myanmese military crushed a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, killing thousands, relations soured. The US downgraded its diplomatic presence with Myanmar, all aid was cut and sanctions were imposed. Myanmar became a pariah state with which the US, and most countries in the West, had only minimal interactions.
The turning point came after a general election in November 2010, and the formation of a quasi-civilian government led by Thein Sein, a former general, who began to release political prisoners and allow freedoms previously denied to citizens – and, more importantly when, on September 20, 2011, the new president announced that he was suspending a US$3.6 billion Sino-Myanmese hydroelectric power project in the north of the country.
If completed, it would have become the fifth largest hydroelectric power station in the world, flooding more than 600 sq km of forest land and with 90 per cent of all the electricity going to China.
Two months later, Clinton went to Myanmar in what became the first visit by a US Secretary of State in more than half a century. She had an emotional meeting with Suu Kyi and held talks with President Thein Sein, which was seen as a watershed in bilateral relations. It paved the way for US President Barack Obama’s historic visit in November 2012, when Clinton accompanied him and they met Thein Sein and Suu Kyi.
Then, in March 2014, Suu Kyi launched the Suu Foundation, a humanitarian organisation dedicated to advancing the health and education of the people of Myanmar. The three most prominent dignitaries there are Clinton, former White House first Lady Laura Bush – and Miemie Winn Byrd who was born in Myanmar and emigrated with her family to the US as a teenager and now is a professor at the Department of Defence-run Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii.
Nobody knows what a Trump presidency would bring to Southeast Asia, but if Clinton moves into the White House, we would see more cooperation between Washington and Naypyidaw – and, perhaps, an even frostier relationship with the old ally Thailand.
Bertil Lintner is the author of ‘Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948’ and ‘Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Unfinished Renaissance’