US rewards Myanmar’s ‘flickers of reform’

U.S. President Barack Obama met with Myanmar President Thein Sein during his six-hour visit to Myanmar. While there, Obama announced $170 million in development aid. Photo by Pete Souza

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced funding in support of a new U.S.-Myanmar partnership focused on advancing democracy in the Asian nation, which has received a succession of donor support following Aung San Suu Kyi’s win in last April’s by-elections.

Obama announced $170 million in development aid on his historic six-hour visit to Myanmar on Monday (Nov. 19). The assistance is expected to promote, among other things, human rights and rule of law, two areas the Western donor has been very particular with its engagement in the country. Among the main priorities in the new partnership is the preparation for a free and credible national election in 2015, where Suu Kyi will reportedly participate.

How the money will be spent, however, remains on the discussion table. 

“This figure represents an amount that remains to be finalized with the Government of Burma,” a U.S. Agency for International Development representative told Devex in an email.

In the coming weeks, the United States and Myanmar will introduce a joint action plan that will include specific policy changes, resource allocations and “other measurable actions each party will pursue under the partnership,” the USAID representative said.

The funding comes almost a year after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to the country, at a time when government reforms were starting to attract positive attention from the international community. Since that visit, donors have eased a number of political and economic sanctions in Myanmar.

Among those donors was the United States, which has partially waived restrictions on businesses and international financial institutions, eased travel sanctions on select government officials, and re-established the USAID mission in the country after a 23-year hiatus. These were U.S. rewards to the reforms the government of Myanmar has taken, including the acceptance of Suu Kyi back in the political arena.

Obama, in his speeches, has acknowledged the “flickers of reform” President Thein Sein has introduced in Myanmar. But while his words carry the same message — that more needs to be done — some fear his visit has given the government a “seal of approval.”

The trip “risks providing an undeserved seal of approval to the military-dominated government that is still violating human rights,” Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said, according to an article published in Foreign Affairs.

Myanmar has yet to fully address ethnic violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state, conflict that has increased displacement and worsened the humanitarian situation in the area. But the government did announce a number of efforts touching on human rights during Obama’s visit. Among them: Allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume access to political prisoners in the country.

Adrienne Valdez contributed reporting.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.