Will Obama’s Myanmar legacy survive under Trump?

Will Obama’s Myanmar legacy survive under Trump?

Andrew Selth,

Aung San Suu Kyi was quick to congratulate U.S. president-elect Donald Trump on his recent victory, but there is no doubt that Myanmar’s state counselor, her government and probably most of the country would have preferred to see Hillary Clinton installed in the White House next year.

Not only was Clinton a driving force behind President Barack Obama’s successful and 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 very sympathetically by the U.S., which would have been appreciated by the state counselor and her fledgling National League for Democracy government as they struggle to cope with Myanmar’s modernization and democratization.

Naypyitaw has other good reasons to be grateful to the Obama administration, and 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, which provides duty-free access for goods from poor and developing countries.

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 number of key executive appointments have yet to be made. Even so, it is possible to speculate about some Myanmar-related issues that are bound to arise after Trump takes office in January.

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and President Barack Obama met in Washington in September. © AP

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and President Barack Obama met in Washington in September. © AP


The basic 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 and address questions of social justice. Suu Kyi enjoys strong support from powerful Republicans in Congress like Mitch McConnell and John McCain, which will help maintain the current levels of engagement and cooperation.

Knowledge gap

Trump’s Nov. 8 election makes other aspects of the bilateral relationship more uncertain. As far as can be determined, he knows very little, if anything, about Myanmar. On Aug. 24, during the presidential campaign, he tweeted his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and families of those affected by an earthquake in central 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. As Myanmar scholar David Steinberg recently pointed out, there has already been a loss of Asia-related expertise from the Washington bureaucracy. Trump’s secretary of state and assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs have yet to be named, but they are unlikely to have the Myanmar background of Clinton and Kurt Campbell. As is customary when the presidency changes, so might the U.S. ambassador in Yangon.

Given Trump’s isolationism and controversial approach to a range of issues relating to international law and practice, 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 given a lower priority since Suu Kyi took office and, despite polite expressions of concern by the U.S. embassy in Yangon, they will probably receive even less attention after January 2017.

The most obvious target for human rights abuses is Myanmar’s mostly stateless Rohingya community. Some members of Congress have already expressed concern about the current military crackdown in Rakhine State — home to most of Myanmar’s Muslim population — and may contemplate the reintroduction of punitive measures against Naypyitaw. Yet, Trump has been scathing in his comments about Muslims and those described as illegal immigrants. Any evidence that the recent attacks by Muslim militants against security outposts were inspired or supported by extremists outside Myanmar, for example, could see the new administration publicly support Naypyitaw’s hard line and put a greater distance between the White House and the Rohingya cause. Treading between major powers, Myanmar is likely to continue its diplomatic balancing act.

Trump’s election victory has already been portrayed by Buddhist extremists in Myanmar as a vindication of their virulent anti-Muslim views. In fact, the public attitudes of the president-elect and the radical monk U Wirathu (who styles himself the “Buddhist bin Laden”), are in some respects so similar that one Yangon-based newspaper listed statements by the two figures and challenged its readers to guess who had made them.

On the trade front, Trump’s protectionist leanings are already worrying people in Myanmar. They fear that he could slow down or even suspend plans by the Obama administration to restore GSP 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 particularly worried about the domination of Myanmar’s economy by military officers and their “capitalist cronies.”)

There is also the wider concern, expressed by Australian academic and NLD 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. This would be damaging to Myanmar. 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. sanctions are being eased, they will not be lifted against those individuals in Myanmar who have been linked to the shadowy relationship between the Tatmadaw and North Korea. The Obama administration softened its rhetoric on this subject after President Thein Sein came to power in 2011, and has said little about it publicly since Suu Kyi’s election in 2015. However, 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. Neither side wants to see a dramatic increase in military-military relations, but 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 and activist groups were paid less attention, both of which are on the cards, 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 has long been misunderstood, and 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. Over the years, successive Myanmar governments have shown themselves adept at using the country’s critical geostrategic position and abundant natural resources to win a wide range of benefits.

Some pundits predicted that, after taking office, Suu Kyi’s closeness to the U.S. and U.K. would see her government tilt towards the West. However, she has demonstrated a determination to pursue a balanced approach that keeps Myanmar on good terms with all the major powers (including India) and regional states. She has also made it clear that Naypyitaw alone will decide the country’s foreign policy. On this she has the strong support of the armed forces leadership, for which the three “national causes” of sovereignty, independence and unity have always been more than mere catch phrases.

In these circumstances, a case can be made that it does not really 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 sensitivities over its 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.

Until Trump appoints the members of his executive and announces specific policies, any discussion of future U.S.-Myanmar ties must remain speculative. If this is how the bilateral relationship eventually develops, however, 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.