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WASHINGTON, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama Monday hailed Sunday’s parliamentary by-election in Myanmar, also known as Burma, which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide.
In a written statement, White House spokesman Jay Carney described the election as “an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation. (W)e hope it is an indication that the Government of Burma intends to continue along the path of greater openness, transparency, and reform.”
But he failed to say what steps Washington may take to further its rapprochement with Myanmar that gained considerable momentum late last year when Hillary Clinton met separately with President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi during the first trip by a secretary of state to Myanmar in nearly 60 years.
Her visit was followed by the government’s release in January of hundreds of political prisoners, one in a series of steps, including Sunday’s by-elections, that the administration said could lead to full normalisation of relations between the two countries.
While State Department officials hinted that some reciprocal gestures – including the anticipated nomination of an ambassador to Yangon – could be expected, Clinton herself suggested Washington would proceed cautiously.
“Going forward, it will be critical for authorities to continue working toward an electoral system that meets international standards, that includes transparency, and expeditiously addresses concerns about intimidation and irregularities,” Clinton said at a press conference in Istanbul Monday in response to some reports of problems at polling places.
If the administration reacted cautiously, three major U.S. business associations interested in Myanmar’s abundant natural resources, including oil and gas, urged deeper engagement in a joint statement.
Calling the election an “important milestone” in Myanmar’s reform process, the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council called for the “continuation and expansion” of “the enhanced U.S. diplomatic engagement with Myanmar” – the name given the country by the ruling military junta that ignored the NLD’s landslide victory in the 1990 elections and subsequently imprisoned most of its leadership.
The three groups, which collectively represent the most important U.S. companies with interests in Southeast Asia and which have long opposed economic sanctions against Myanmar, called explicitly for the administration to name a U.S. ambassador “as soon as possible”.
“We believe that such engagement has been, and will be, crucial in encouraging and supporting further reform,” they said.
Of the 44 seats that were up for grabs in Sunday’s elections, the NLD reportedly won at least 40 and possibly as many as 43, including the rural seat contested by Suu Kyi herself, according to the latest reports. While some minor opposition parties participated in 2010 elections, this was the first contested by the NLD since the 1990 poll.
Whether the NLD’s victory will translate into real political power, however, remains to be seen. Even if it wins 43 seats, the NLD will hold just over six percent of the 664-seat Union Parliament, which remains dominated by the military that has effectively controlled Myanmar’s government since 1962. Without support from the government, the party will be unable to pass laws on its own, let alone amend the military-designed constitution.
Nonetheless, veteran Myanmar observers here have been pleasantly surprised by the reforms initiated by the government since Thein Sein, himself a former general, was inaugurated as president last March.
In addition to freeing hundreds of political prisoners and legalising the NLD, the government has also enacted labour reforms, relaxed media censorship, and engaged Suu Kyi herself in an intensive dialogue that some analysts believe may result in her being asked to accept a cabinet-level position.
The government has also consulted with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a process that has resulted, among other things, in ongoing reforms in the country’s extremely restrictive foreign investment regime and in Monday’s float of the national currency, the kyat, in what is widely regarded as the most far-reaching step yet in integrating Myanmar into the global economy.
Pending changes in the rules governing foreign trade and investment could radically transform the local economy, which has been among the world’s most highly protected for decades.
In addition to providing foreign investors with tax holidays and easing regulations requiring them to partner with local businesses, draft legislation would permit foreign companies the right to lease land and import their skilled workers.
U.S. companies are eager to take advantage of these reforms as soon as possible. In order to do so, however, Washington will have to lift a raft economic sanctions – including a ban on new investment – that have been in effect for some 15 years.
The European Union (EU) has imposed similar – albeit not quite as far-reaching – sanctions. The EU, however, has recently resumed providing aid to Myanmar, and its top trade official Monday indicated the group was ready to lift some economic sanctions.
According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Obama has the authority to waive many of the sanctions without Congressional approval, and one of the major questions in the wake of the election and enactment of the pending economic reforms will be whether he will do so.
He could also ask Congress to amend existing legislation, but initial reaction from lawmakers who have been particularly outspoken against the military in Myanmar was not encouraging.
“Now is not the time for the international community to rush toward lifting pressure on Burma,” said Rep. Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat who congratulated Suu Kyi on her electoral success but noted that “far too many political prisoners are still locked behind bars,” while conflict between the military and the country’s ethnic minorities persists.
Similarly, Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma and a former political prisoner himself, said Washington should be patient.
“The United States and EU should not reward the regime simply because the NLD has some seats in the Parliament,” he said. “They should wait until we see clearly how these newly elected MPs are treated by the (ruling party) and the military in the Parliament.”
He added that the West should “send a clear message to the regime that their failure to co-operate with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the Parliament will not be acceptable.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, also advised caution in an essay posted at cfr.org Monday.
“In the wake of the election, the United States and other leading democracies should continue to move slowly in engaging with Myanmar,” he wrote, urging increases in aid, particularly to ethnic minority regions.
But “Washington and other actors should not lift sanctions on trade and investment with Myanmar now,” he added, suggesting that they wait until the end of this year or next “to see how the NLD and Suu Kyi are treated in parliament, what kind of freedom they have to criticize and push legislation, and whether the planned 2015 national elections are likely to go forward.”
But pressure from the business lobby, which has been frustrated as Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian companies have taken full advantage of western sanctions by increasing their stake in Myanmar, is likely to be intense.
In addition, growing geo-strategic competition between Beijing and Washington in Southeast Asia over the past two years has intensified the Pentagon’s interest in Myanmar.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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