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5 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #45 | march 2014 PRISCILLA CLAPP is a former Foreign Service Officer, who served as U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. She is now a Senior Advisor to the Asia Society and the United States Institute of Peace. She can be reached at . The Influence of Domestic Issues on Myanmar’s Foreign Policy: A Historical Perspective Priscilla Clapp EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This essay describes the influence of internal events and circumstances on Myanmar’s foreign policy and external relations from the end of the colonial period to present. MAIN ARGUMENT Emerging from colonial rule as a battleground in World War II, Myanmar soon found itself buffeted by Cold War power struggles between Communist giants and East and West. To avoid being drawn into the turmoil, the fledgling democracy of the 1950s adopted a foreign policy of strict neutrality and nonalignment. Consumed by internal insurgencies on several fronts, Myanmar slid into a harsh form of military rule after 1962 and closed its doors to isolate itself from the post-independence struggles besieging the neighborhood. After the events of 1988, the military rulers tried to end their self-imposed isolation, but Western countries began applying political and economic sanctions that effectively perpetuated isolation for another twenty years. In response, the military government adopted a defensive foreign policy using its neighbors, especially other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, as a buffer against a Western attack. When the transition to a quasi-elected government in 2011 suddenly spawned a dramatic succession of political and economic reforms, the waves of international opprobrium ceased. Myanmar now finds itself in the embrace of the international community and is gradually adjusting to its newfound status. POLICY IMPLICATIONS • Myanmar’s foreign policy will remain consistently neutral and nonaligned, although the country will inevitably become increasingly bound to its Southeast Asian neighbors as ASEAN realizes its post-2015 goal of the ASEAN Economic Community. • The failure to confront communal violence against Muslims could seriously complicate Myanmar’s relations with Muslim countries in Asia and elsewhere. • While the current government is clearly vested in the democratic reform process, the sustainability of reforms beyond 2015 will depend vitally on the government’s ability to deliver a higher standard of living to the general population, as well as its success in delivering peace, prosperity, and equality to the country’s peripheries. 7 THE INFLUENCE OF DOMESTIC ISSUES ON MYANMAR’S FOREIGN POLICY u CLAPP A s with any country, Myanmar’s internal conditions and challenges play a central role in determining how its government frames foreign policy and manages external relations. Nonetheless, very few countries have allowed internal matters to overpower foreign relations so thoroughly and for such a long period of time as Myanmar did during the 50 years leading up to the decision by its new government to embark on a program of radical reform in 2011. It is therefore not surprising that the country’s dramatic internal reforms have had the effect of transforming its interest in the global community and approach to foreign policy. This transformation has not been formed out of whole cloth, however; it is a fabric woven by decades of Myanmar coping with internal strife, dodging great power struggles both inside and outside its borders, interacting with a hostile world, and arriving at new calculations about how to achieve the country’s best interests in a rapidly evolving neighborhood. In order to appreciate fully the nature of this abrupt departure from the isolation that marked Myanmar’s past and why the new leadership’s perspective on the world seems to have changed so markedly, one must first explore the country’s modern history, beginning with the end of the colonial era. To set the stage for subsequent essays in this report, this essay will provide a retrospective on the interplay between domestic issues and foreign policy during the three main eras succeeding independence from British colonial rule: the democratic years from 1947 to 1962, the Ne Win government from 1962 to 1988, and the years of martial law under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) from 1988 to 2011.1 The essay will then describe the domestic objectives of the political and economic transition that have reshaped the government’s attitudes toward foreign relations and will end with a number of observations and conclusions about possible trends in...


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