US Myanmar Policy Stalls

United States policy toward Myanmar is regarded by many as one of the most important successes of President Barack Obama’s first term. US engagement played a critical role in lending momentum to political reform in the country. But US-Myanmar relations have appeared somewhat stalled in Obama’s second term.

In addition to human rights, communal tensions, and the prospects for military reform, one major issue that has hobbled further engagement is the need for constitutional reform to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the presidency in 2015. Yet if the United States wants to promote its long-term interests in Myanmar, Washington will need to start planning its policies with an eye beyond 2015 and prepare to deal with a Myanmar that might not have Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm.

A number of US lawmakers have openly questioned whether the administration has decided to embrace Naypyidaw too quickly. Congress in January passed a spending bill that makes removal of the remaining US sanctions conditional on wide-ranging reforms, including making Myanmar’s constitution more democratic and achieving substantial progress on human rights. In April, a bill was introduced that would suspend US security assistance to Myanmar in the next two years unless the government takes steps to establish civilian control of the armed forces and amend the constitution.

For many in Congress, amending the constitution essentially means changing Article 59(f), known as the “Suu Kyi clause,” which bars individuals from becoming president if their spouses or children hold foreign citizenship. This formulation disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi, whose sons are British citizens.

Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1) is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, and Phuong Nguyen, Research Associate, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, CSIS