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Andrew Selth: Will Obama's Myanmar legacy survive under his successor?

Trump lacks the expertise and likely the desire to engage deeply with Naypyitaw

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Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington on Sept. 14.   © Reuters

Aung San Suu Kyi was quick to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory in the U.S. presidential election, but there is no doubt that Myanmar's state counselor would have preferred to see Hillary Clinton installed in the White House.

Not only was Clinton a driving force behind President Barack Obama's farsighted policy of "pragmatic engagement" with Myanmar, but she was familiar with the country and established a personal rapport with Suu Kyi. Under a Clinton administration, Myanmar would have been treated sympathetically by the U.S., which would have been appreciated by the state counselor as she struggles to cope with Myanmar's modernization and democratization.

Naypyitaw has other reasons to be grateful to the Obama administration, and to Clinton in particular. During Suu Kyi's visit to Washington in September, for example, it was announced that economic sanctions against Myanmar would be lifted in order to unleash the country's "enormous potential." Earlier, Obama had notified the U.S. Congress that he would be reinstating preferential tariffs for Myanmar under the Generalized System of Preferences.

The future of the bilateral relationship under a Trump presidency is more difficult to predict. Specific policies are either unknown or the subject of inconsistent statements. Some positions taken by the president-elect during his campaign have already been subject to unexpected reversals. A few key executive appointments have yet to be made. Even so, it is possible to speculate about some issues that are bound to arise.

The fundamentals of U.S. policy toward Myanmar are unlikely to change. Washington will continue to place a high priority on the development of a truly democratic, stable and prosperous Myanmar. It will encourage Naypyitaw to negotiate a nationwide peace agreement with armed ethnic groups. Also, Suu Kyi enjoys strong support from powerful Republicans in Congress, which will help maintain current levels of engagement.

KNOWLEDGE GAP Trump's Nov. 8 election adds uncertainty to other aspects of the bilateral relationship. During the presidential campaign, he tweeted his "thoughts and prayers" to the victims of an earthquake in Myanmar. That gesture aside, he has shown no interest in the country nor demonstrated any knowledge of its complex problems.

Trump's management of the relationship will be complicated by the fact that his administration will lack the depth of experience that was built up under Obama. There has already been a loss of Asia-related expertise from the Washington bureaucracy. Trump's secretary of state has no known background in Myanmar affairs and his assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs has yet to be named.

Given Trump's isolationism and controversial approach to international law, including his support for the use of torture, it would be surprising if the incoming administration gave a high priority to tackling human rights violations by the Myanmar government and its armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw). These matters have already been accorded a lower priority since Suu Kyi took office and will probably receive even less attention after Trump takes office on Jan. 20.

The most obvious target for human rights abuses is Myanmar's Muslim Rohingyas. Some members of Congress have already expressed concern about the current military crackdown against this community and may try to reintroduce punitive measures against Naypyitaw. Yet, Trump has been scathing in his general comments about Muslims and those described as illegal immigrants.

Any evidence that recent attacks by militants in Rakhine State were supported by Muslim extremists outside Myanmar, for example, could put a greater distance between the White House and the Rohingya cause. Trump's election victory has already been portrayed by Buddhist extremists in Myanmar as a vindication of their virulent anti-Muslim views.

On the trade front, Trump's protectionist leanings already worry people in Myanmar. They fear that he could slow down or even suspend the decision by the Obama administration to restore Generalized System of Preferences benefits to Myanmar. Local businesses have been hoping that this move will increase exports to the U.S. and prompt an expansion of bilateral trade. (It is widely assumed that the billionaire president-elect will not be fussed about the domination of Myanmar's economy by military officers and their "capitalist cronies.")

There is also wider concern, expressed by Australian academic and National League for Democracy economic adviser Sean Turnell, that Trump's election may herald a shift by the U.S. and other countries away from liberal and open economic policies. As Turnell stated recently: "No country has more to gain from international investment, trade, and an open economy more broadly than Myanmar."

While U.S. economic sanctions are being lifted, tough measures will remain against those individuals in Myanmar linked to the Tatmadaw's shadowy relationship with North Korea. The Obama administration has said little about this subject since Suu Kyi's election in 2015, but security concerns remain, and these will doubtless be shared by Trump, who sees North Korea as a global threat.

One area in which there might be some progress is the security sector. A Trump administration could be sympathetic to increased exchanges between the armed forces of the two countries. If human rights issues were given a lower priority, there could be greater scope for members of the Tatmadaw and Myanmar's national police force to attend training courses in the U.S.

BALANCING ACT Perhaps the biggest question mark arises over Trump's attitude toward China and how this might affect U.S. relations with Myanmar.

Myanmar's role in the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington is often misrepresented. It would be naive to think that it does not figure in the calculations of both the Americans and the Chinese, but the ability of the major powers to manipulate Myanmar is more limited than popularly believed. Indeed, Naypyitaw holds a strong hand. Successive Myanmar governments have shown themselves adept at using the country's critical geostrategic position and abundant natural resources to win benefits.

Some pundits predicted that after taking office, Suu Kyi's closeness to the U.S. and U.K. would see her government tilt toward the West. However, she has demonstrated a determination to pursue a balanced approach. She has also made it clear that Naypyitaw alone will decide the country's foreign policy. On this, she has the support of the armed forces leadership, for which the three "national causes" of sovereignty, independence and unity have always been more than mere catchphrases.

In these circumstances, it may not matter whether Trump tries to improve U.S. relations with China or adopts a more belligerent attitude than the outgoing administration. Myanmar will continue to tread a careful path between the two great powers, recognizing the strategic realities (such as Myanmar's sensitive border with China and the latter's enormous economic weight) while resisting pressures to favor one side over the other. As it has done for decades, Myanmar will protect its own vital interests by remaining neutral.

If this is how the bilateral relationship eventually develops, Suu Kyi and her government would probably be content. It would not be an ideal outcome for them, but they already face enough challenges at home without wanting to add new ones from abroad.

Andrew Selth is an adjunct associate professor at Griffith University and the Australian National University.

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