Courting International Suitors

Burma says its relations with China won’t suffer as ties with the US warm.
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Burmese Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin, Nov. 19, 2011.
Burmese Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin, Nov. 19, 2011.

Burma’s improved ties with the U.S. are unlikely to dampen links with its traditional ally China, Burmese Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin said, ahead of the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to the Southeast Asian nation in half a century.

He said in an interview with RFA that as part of Burma’s new campaign of reform, the new nominally civilian government is seeking to improve relations with countries across the globe.

“I don't think an improved relationship between Burma and the U.S. will leave China disappointed,” Wanna Maung Lwin said at the weekend on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit in Indonesia.

“The entire world has embraced the idea of transparency and formed a new outlook on international relations since the end of the Cold War period. Burma is also trying to build good ties with all nations and so improved ties with one country shouldn’t affect [relations with] the other.”

The foreign minister praised Burma’s “steps in the right direction” under the leadership of President Thein Sein, who took power in March after historic elections in November last year, and said that foreign nations had been impressed with the country’s “[move] towards democracy … in accordance with the people’s wishes.”

But he cautioned that Burma would have to achieve “peace and stability” first before reforming too rapidly.

“You can see some countries who rushed into democratic transitions during the 1990s and the late 1980s are now having instability problems,” he said.

“We are taking time to build the necessary institutions through a national convention and other means.”

Wanna Maung Lwin pointed to the recent adoption of a new Constitution ahead of last year’s elections and the current trend of debating “nation-building issues” in Burma’s parliament as indicators of measured reform.

“The world sees these early moves towards democracy and has changed its attitude towards us. Even some who did not see us favorably [in the past] have changed their minds and encouraged our reforms,” he said.

Warming ties

Since taking power from the military junta, Thein Sein’s government has enacted a series of reforms which have been mostly welcomed by the international community, including easing media controls, legalizing labor unions, and suspending a controversial dam project backed by China.

But the United States and other Western nations that have long-running sanctions on Burma are awaiting signals from prodemocracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from 15 years of house arrest last November following landmark elections, on when to lift the restrictions.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who is sending his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Burma next month, has also sought Aung San Suu Kyi's "ideas and thoughts about the best approach" to inducing reforms in Burma.

Clinton will be the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country in 50 years.

Wanna Maung Lwin acknowledged that warming relations with the U.S. and other western countries came after Burma was “ready” to transition into democratic reforms.

“We knew that all these countries wanted us to move towards democracy, but their idea was to put political pressure on us and enforce sanctions. But even then, we did what we had to do first in a steadfast manner,” he said.

“We are ready for the transition only now. It is natural that these countries are changing their outlook on us.”

The foreign minister said he hopes that ties with the U.S. will improve and that the two countries will move towards normalized relations, but he stressed that the diplomatic ball lay in the U.S. court.

“It depends on future bilateral cooperation after initially building a mutual trust,” he said.

The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Burma following the former military junta’s crackdown on democracy activists in 1988 and the regimes failure to honor the results of a 1990 election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win by a landslide.

Burma maintains an ambassador in Washington.

“We didn’t make this decision [to withdraw the U.S. ambassador] and now they have direct dealings with us. If they want to assist us—to encourage us in our democratic transition—the U.S. will have to make the call,” Wanna Maung Lwin said.

“On our part, we want to have mutual respect and understanding to improve ties and we are ready for that.”

Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.





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