The United States sees encouraging new signs of openness in isolated Myanmar, but after decades of military rule, the Asian country has a way to go before it loses its pariah status and rids itself of tough sanctions.
Special envoy to Myanmar Derek Mitchell said Monday there seems to be a trend toward greater openness in that Asian country but questions remain about its commitment to democratic change.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, held elections last year which, although flawed, were its first since pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi swept a 1990 vote and was barred from taking power.
In late September, the government stopped work on a controversial China-backed dam, saying the $3.6 billion project was "against the will of the people." And last week, authorities freed as many as 250 of the country's 2,000-plus political detainees.
Mitchell welcomed the government's recent moves as encouraging and said his September visit yielded productive meetings with Myanmar officials, traditionally viewed as xenophobic. He said they were willing to discuss any issues he raised.
"Right now I think there are a lot of restrictions that make them into a pariah state. And Burma is a proud country with a tremendous history, and they deserve to come out of the shadows and take their prideful place in the region," Mitchell told a news conference in Washington.
Myanmar, a former breadbasket of Southeast Asia, has suffered not just repressive government but poor economic management during nearly 50 years of military rule. It is subject to wide-ranging trade, economic and political sanctions from the U.S. and other Western nations, enforced in response to brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007 and its refusal to hand power to Suu Kyi's party after the 1990 elections.
Sanctions and isolation have failed to force change and served only to complicate U.S. engagement with the economically vibrant Southeast Asian region, as Washington looks to deepen its existing alliances and forge new ones to counter China's rise.
The Obama administration has sought to engage Myanmar, and after two years there are signs of change, although whether that is in response to U.S. overtures is difficult to tell. Myanmar also is vying to assume the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014 and may be trying to impress ASEAN leaders before they meet at a November summit, when the decision could be made.
When it comes to rewarding Myanmar for reforms, Washington is likely to have tougher criteria than ASEAN, and it is likely to proceed in an incremental manner.
Mitchell would not give specifics about what those steps might be. David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University, said a first move could be to allow the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to help Myanmar.
The U.S. already has made some positive gestures, such as easing travel restrictions that enabled Myanmar's foreign minister to visit the State Department last month.
For more tangible concessions, a key test will be action on political prisoners. Mitchell urged releases of all such detainees, including 1988-era student protest leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, and a monk at the forefront of the 2007 protests, Gambiri.
Mitchell also said that while the government has held high-level talks with democratic opposition leader Suu Kyi, it has not made comparable progress in its relations with ethnic minorities in the north and east of Myanmar. He noted credible reports of continued human rights abuses, including against minority women and children.
"We made it very clear that we could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur," he said.
Myanmar is an ethnically diverse nation, and most of the minorities have taken up arms at some point against the government dominated by the military and the ethnic Burman majority. Legions of villagers have been displaced by brutal military campaigns, and this year has seen violence flare in the Kachin and Shan states against ethnic armies that had reached cease-fires with the Myanmar regime.
Steinberg said the U.S. also would be looking to see a further decrease in media censorship and the legalization of Suu Kyi's political party, which was outlawed for boycotting the 2010 elections as unfair.