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U.S. Policy Shift on Myanmar

Interviewee: Kara C. McDonald, International Affairs Fellow in Residence
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, CFR.org Staff Writer
September 30, 2009

Signaling a policy shift toward the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, the Obama administration has decided to engage in direct talks with the country's military regime. The new policy comes after seven months of review; in February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Washington's policy--isolating the regime through sanctions--had failed. However, the administration has stressed that Washington will maintain its existing sanctions against Myanmar unless it sees concrete progress toward reform. CFR International Affairs Fellow Kara C. McDonald says she is skeptical that this tactical shift in U.S. policy will help achieve its goal of a democratic Myanmar that respects human rights, releases all its political prisoners, and ends conflict with its ethnic minorities. But, she says, it is useful that Washington is reviewing a policy that has clearly not worked. Now the United States will no longer rely on the United Nations to deal with Myanmar, which so far has largely been unsuccessful in influencing the regime's behavior.

Next year's national election in Myanmar, says McDonald, provides an opportunity for Washington to identify some concrete steps and benchmarks as a means toward rapprochement. She says Washington needs to be pragmatic and work on an alternative plan if this strategy of engagement fails to help push reforms. She says the United States must work with its partners--the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, Myanmar's regional partners, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--to build a multilateral consensus on how to deal with the country.

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