When Hillary Clinton arrives in Myanmar next month on the first trip by an American secretary of state to that country in half a century, it will be the first comprehensive repudiation of the notion since Barack Obama's travel to India a year ago that his visit produced very little by way of tangible results. Clinton would never set foot on the soil of Myanmar in its present incarnation without patient, if under-the-radar diplomacy between India and the United States of America.
Washington's diplomats, even some of its brightest, such as Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state who deals with Myanmar, have been repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to either open up Myanmar or to even get a toehold in Naypyitaw, that country's capital which is as confounding to Westerners as its name suggests. Campbell may have been tempted to give up his attempts to engage Myanmar quite some time ago if it had not been for sensible advice from New Delhi, born out of years of what could only be described as fraternal ties with what was once Burma.
After one very frustrating visit to Myanmar as part of the Obama administration's determined drive for a breakthrough in Naypyidaw, Campbell arrived in New Delhi and threw up his hands, conceding complete failure to make any sense of what that country's rulers were about. In Yangon itself, Campbell summed up his feelings from the visit as one of "profound disappointment".
But the Indians counselled patience and told the Americans that such disappointment was the result of Washington's style of diplomacy and an inability to comprehend how the business of statecraft is conducted in Yangon or in Naypyidaw.
In Myanmar, you don't step off a special aircraft, have a structured, business-like meeting followed by a working lunch and head back to the airport with answers to be composed into a classified telegram on a secure laptop in-flight, ready to be sent within hours back to headquarters from Bangkok, Singapore or even Calcutta. The Indians discovered long ago that even with their special relationship in Yangon, nurtured by history and geography, they do not get instant answers to their questions. The Chinese found out at great cost that even creating policies that have served the junta in Myanmar well for decades required patient work.
So, South Block's advice to Washington since Clinton announced a Myanmar policy review in February 2009 has been to talk to Myanmar even if it was like talking to a wall: India assured Obama administration officials that the answers they were seeking for their questions would eventually come.
And they did, indeed. In August last year, the Obama administration took an eminently sensible decision to appoint Joseph Yun, a career foreign service officer of East Asian descent as the state department's principal interlocutor for Myanmar. In Yangon, they were more comfortable talking to someone who looked like them and presumably understood them better than to someone who may have typified the stereotype of a Washington diplomat.
On his second visit to Myanmar in May this year, Yun got unprecedented access to that country's leaders for any US official in many decades. Although Yun is only a deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the state department, he met Myanmar's foreign minister, the deputy Speaker of the country's lower house of parliament and the chief minister of at least one region.
Considering that Senator John McCain, a presidential candidate in 2008, was given access only to a first vice-president and Speakers of both chambers of parliament when he travelled to Yangon a month later, the dialogue between Yun and those in the power structure, especially the foreign policy power structure in Myanmar, has been remarkable and precisely on the lines that South Block had predicted.
Indians who discussed Myanmar for this column cautioned against exaggerating New Delhi's role in the rapprochement between Washington and Naypyidaw. But it was clear from subsequent conversations with Americans and South East Asian diplomats involved in the process that South Block's diffidence to claim credit for a major Asian diplomatic breakthrough was the result of a firm belief that India can continue to play a role in this rapprochement and other similar initiatives by quietly making its diplomatic moves instead of crowing about it.
Unlike the ministry of external affairs, the Obama administration has acknowledged India's role, at times between the lines but at other times explicitly, in their public statements. These statements go well beyond any claims that India is willing to make.
For instance, Campbell said in Yangon in May 2010 that for seven continuous months after Clinton announced her Myanmar policy review nearly three years ago, "we consulted widely and deliberately in order to seek the best ideas from around the world… The result of that extensive review was to launch a policy of pragmatic engagement with Burma's leadership…We continue to consult and coordinate closely with key countries including those within ASEAN, the European Union, with India, Japan, China and others and a number of players outside governments seeking a more positive future in Burma."
Obama said while addressing members of Parliament a year ago that "when peaceful democratic movements are suppressed — as they have been in Burma, for example — then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protesters and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade… It is unacceptable to steal elections, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see. Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community — especially leaders like the United States and India — to condemn it. And if I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues."
Obama's reference to Myanmar reflected the frustration within his administration at that time that those in charge in Naypyidaw were clearly not jumping at a chance to normalize relations with Washington. Obama forgot that for the Myanmarese, their nation's honour was paramount.
The United Progressive Alliance government was criticized then for not frontally responding to the US president's criticism of a friendly neighbouring state from Indian soil. The dilemma New Delhi faced at that time was whether to stand up for what could arguably be false pride, or if continuing the backroom diplomacy that has since contributed to Clinton's upcoming trip to Myanmar was more important.
Then Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told reporters in a background briefing within hours of Obama's speech that "we have security reasons as well as strategic interest in engaging with Myanmar. We have a close and contiguous relationship with Myanmar." Although Rao asked journalists at that time not to attribute the statement to her, lest it caused unpleasantness during the state visit, the apt choice of words clearly identified the briefer. "Myanmar is not a country on the dark side of the moon but a country on our borders with which we have to deal."
Besides, by then, India had invested heavily in efforts to bring Myanmar back into the community of nations. Delivering the ninth Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Lecture in New Delhi three years ago, the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, acknowledged India's role in facilitating his visit to Myanmar in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis. The significance of what Ban acknowledged was that his trip to Yangon was the first by a UN secretary-general in 44 years. Such was the isolation of Burma through the decades.
"I will continue to use my good offices" to promote cooperation between Myanmar and the international community, Ban said. "A shared approach by key interested member states such as India will be essential. With that in mind, last month at the UN Headquarters I convened a high-level meeting on the subject. India was represented at that session, and I look forward to the next steps we will take."
Curiously, First Ladies, more than presidents, have been problematic in efforts to normalize relations with Myanmar. In India, Usha Narayanan, the Burmese-origin wife of President K.R. Narayanan, was a forceful voice against the junta in Yangon during her husband's time in Rashtrapati Bhavan. In the White House, Laura Bush was dead set against any initiative of the kind that Clinton has now undertaken.
But after cyclone Nargis even the then US First Lady acknowledged India's ability to influence Myanmar. "I think India can help," Laura Bush said at a White House press conference. "India is close on the border there. I think there are a lot of ways they could help and get help there quickly, and maybe the Burmese government would accept it more readily from the Indian government than they do from the US government." In Washington, there is much deeper recognition than in New Delhi that this has not changed.
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