Over the past two months, the United States, which for more than a decade has isolated the Burmese junta, appears to have dramatically shifted its policy towards the regime. After a comprehensive internal policy review, the Obama administration announced that it would engage with Burma more directly, though it would also (for now) maintain sanctions on the regime. In a sign of thawing relations, the Burmese foreign minister, Nyan Win, went to Washington in September – a rare visit for a senior junta leader.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill some powerful lawmakers have been pushing for a change in policy: most notably, Senator Jim Webb. But John Kerry, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would also like greater engagement with Burma, according to several associates who’ve worked with him for decades. In fact, they say, Kerry would be interested in making a high-profile trip to Burma, depending on the outcome of the 2010 elections (they’ll be rigged, of course, but could even so deliver some suprises with a number of relatively independent candidates). Indeed, within the State Department several friends who work closely on Burma policy have told me that Foggy Bottom is likely to push for even more engagement, thinking up ways to improve Burma’s financial sector and meeting with Chinese officials to discuss ways of co-operating to promote reform in Burma.
For its part, the junta appears to be intent on building better ties to the US – by allowing Webb to see Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, a privilege denied even to the UN secretary general. Yet Washington would do well to regard this apparent openness with caution. As I have noted before, the Burmese junta has been adept at giving the outside world just enough to win some concessions, without ever opening up enough to allow real change. Unfortunately, US policymakers who have only recently begun taking an interest in Burma don’t seem to be aware of this history.