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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, May 07, 2017 1:00 am

Myanmar awaiting some US assurance

Washington Post

WASHINGTON – As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed officials from 10 Southeast Asian nations this week, a representative from Myanmar handed him a personalized letter.

The author was Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto leader of the nation's civilian government, who wanted to express regrets for being absent due to a scheduling conflict, U.S. officials said.

The note represented rare direct communication between Suu Kyi and the Trump administration. As President Donald Trump has made a flurry of calls to foreign leaders, he has yet to speak with Suu Kyi, who twice welcomed Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, to her lakeside villa in Rangoon as a powerful symbol of U.S. support for the slow, fitful transition from authoritarian military rule to a fledgling democracy in the nation also known as Burma.

The Myanmar project remains fraught – political reforms have ebbed, and Suu Kyi has faced international criticism for failing to speak out more forcefully against ethnic violence directed toward the Muslim minority. And China continues to exert economic and political pressure on the neighboring nation of 54 million.

From Capitol Hill to Yangon, the question is whether the Trump administration will continue to nurture Myanmar's transition or turn its back at a crucial juncture.

“The country wants it. It gives them a sense of confidence,” Derek Mitchell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from 2012 to 2016, said of political support from Washington. “But the focus on things we care about, such as values and democracy and human rights, they don't feel that with Trump. There's a cost in losing all of that.”

Behind the scenes, Myanmar's ambassador to Washington has been pressing the White House for more attention from high-level officials, a sign of Suu Kyi's uncertainty about Trump's public silence.

Trump aides emphasized that the president's failure to reach out to her is not intended as a slight. On Friday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster hosted the Southeast Asian officials, including Myanmar's representative, at the White House. Trump aides said the president, who was away at his estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, would have stopped by had he been in town.

The questions over Trump's approach to Myanmar come as the administration is starting to formulate its broader policy stance toward Southeast Asia and what role the countries there may play in the U.S. effort to further isolate North Korea diplomatically and economically. Administration officials pointed to several signals in recent days that were intended to reassure the region that the White House would maintain a focus there even as it scrapped the Obama administration's “Asia rebalance” policy aimed at deepening U.S. security and trade ties.

In Indonesia last month, Vice President Mike Pence announced that Trump would attend a trio of security and economic summits in Vietnam and the Philippines this fall.

Tillerson emphasized to the Southeast Asian officials that the administration would make a “sustained commitment” to the region, said W. Patrick Murphy, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia.

In a conference call with reporters, Murphy added that the administration's relationship with Myanmar would be “enduring.”

In a separate interview, a senior White House official was more emphatic, emphasizing that Trump views Southeast Asia as “the most exciting component” in an emerging administration strategy for the broader Asia region.

This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president's thinking, pointed to the combined population of more than 600 million among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their fast-growing economies as key reasons for sustained U.S. engagement.

Yet the administration's failure to produce a coherent foreign policy strategy has alarmed members of Congress who fear Myanmar will be neglected or mishandled.

In his first meeting with Tillerson, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told him, “Don't forget about Burma,” according to people familiar with the conversation.

But McConnell, who helped shepherd the U.S. economic sanctions that prodded Myanmar's military regime toward reforms, has been left trying to piece together where the administration is headed from scant public or private signals.

A Senate Republican leadership aide said that as the administration attempts to coax Beijing to do more to change North Korea's behavior, it is unclear where Myanmar, whose opening to the West was once viewed as a hedge against China's economic and military muscle, fits in.