WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is troubled by religious discrimination and the Myanmar military's grip on politics as the nation heads into landmark elections Sunday that are an acid test of its democratic reforms. But for the Obama administration, the question is no longer whether to engage the former pariah state. It's about how deep the relationship should be.
Most U.S. economic and political restrictions were suspended three years ago after Myanmar's repressive junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government. Those benefits are unlikely to be rolled back, but the credibility of the election could determine future U.S. cooperation with Myanmar's powerful armed forces and whether remaining sanctions are lifted.
Washington's support for Myanmar's shift from five decades of direct military rule was a rare foreign policy triumph of President Barack Obama's first term — demonstration of his willingness to extend a hand to America's most enduring adversaries. During his second term, the administration has gone on to reconcile with Cuba and strike a nuclear deal with Iran.
Building ties with Myanmar has served U.S. strategic interests, diluting the influence China had over Myanmar during its long international isolation, and smoothing the way for greater U.S. involvement with Southeast Asia's regional bloc that has been key to Obama's foreign policy shift toward the Pacific.
But the flood of goodwill in Washington that greeted Myanmar's initial shift from military dictatorship has dried up as political reforms have stalled. As the country also known as Burma prepares for its most competitive election in a generation, there's little talk in Congress about removing sanctions. Rather, lawmakers have called for blacklisting of individuals responsible for human rights abuses against persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims who face violence and intimidation at the hands of Buddhist extremists.
The U.S. administration remains upbeat about Myanmar, but has also been critical of the pro-military government of President Thein Sein. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday said that "systemic problems" with the structure of Myanmar's politics "will prevent this from being a completely free and fair election."
He was referring to the military's lock on a quarter of parliamentary seats that gives it a veto over amendments of the junta-era constitution, which also bars opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. Officials have also criticized the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya and sidelining of Muslim candidates for parliament.
But Walter Lohman at the conservative Heritage Foundation said that short of the vote being marred by terrible violence, the administration would be likely to portray it as a step forward for Myanmar. He said the administration's position that the election should be "credible, transparent and inclusive" allows it some wiggle room.
"At the end of the day, the administration will probably find a way to swallow whatever happens in these elections, but if the disconnect between what they say and the reality is great enough, it could cause tensions on the Hill," Lohman said, referring to Congress.
The Obama administration says the conduct of the election will fundamentally shape future U.S. engagement toward Myanmar. Rhodes cautioned that if the election is not credible and or the result is not respected, "clearly it's going to make it harder for us to move forward" with the U.S.-Myanmar relationship.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the most influential congressional voice on Myanmar policy, said last month if the elections don't reflect popular will, it will be difficult to extend U.S. duty-free trade privileges and enhance political-military relations.
But a major reversal to the U.S. engagement policy isn't on the cards.
Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that it would take a military coup — or a repeat of 1990 election, when Suu Kyi's party won by landslide and the military overturned the result — for the U.S. to return to policy of diplomatic isolation of Myanmar and re-imposition of blanket sanctions.
Bower says such a military intervention is unlikely to happen. Business cronies of the former regime are among those who have invested in political parties and have a strong interest in Myanmar continuing to opening up so its economy can grow, he said.
Like the U.S. business community, they want Washington to lift its remaining targeted sanctions that still bar dealings with military-run companies and other blacklisted entities linked to the former junta. Those restrictions remain a drag on U.S. investment in a country rich in oil, gas and minerals, and with a largely unexploited market of 55 million people.
Three years after the door into Myanmar was opened for U.S. companies, American foreign direct investment still totals only $250 million, according to Myanmar government figures. Two-way trade last year was just $180 million.