us myanmar engagement

A U.S. Special Envoy for Myanmar?

U.S. Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Finally, the Obama administration appears to be seriously getting down to appointing a special envoy for Myanmar, according to State Department spokesman P J Crowley. Experts at an event I attended yesterday seemed to think this is a good idea for U.S. policy, regardless of whether the administration pursues sanctions, engagement or a combination of the two.

U.S. policy on Myanmar has long lacked focus and cohesion. Part of this is because Myanmar is a much lower priority compared to other Asian issues, like China or Japan. Lorne Craner, who has worked in both the State Department and the National Security Council, plainly admitted that “when you work on Burma, you get to it only at six or seven at night”.It has also been hard to coordinate policy on Myanmar within different parts of the U.S. government like the State Department and Treasury, which, according to Jared Genser, international counsel for the imprisoned Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, “has been a real problem”.

The Obama administration, while well-intentioned, has also had specific problems with regard to its Myanmar policy. Mr. Craner charged that the relationship between the administration’s position and the the opinions of U.S. Senator Jim Webb remains unclear despite clear policy divergences, and his visit to Myanmar last year (the first by a senior US official in more than a decade) sparked speculation about a “new era of engagement”. He also contended that the Myanmar issue was also less of a priority compared to the Bush administration, where the President and First Lady took particular interest in the subject. Mr. Genser, for his part, added that the Obama administration’s Myanmar policy review, which lasted several months, was far too long, which resulted in European and Southeast Asian governments putting their policies on hold and hence reducing the pressure on the junta.

Appointing a special envoy, both agreed, would help improve coordination, priority and focus on U.S. Myanmar policy, a particularly critical development this year because of an upcoming election due in the country — its first in two decades. Selecting a “special representative and policy coordinator” for Myanmar is also a legal requirement under the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act signed into law by President Bush in 2008.

Who should this “special envoy” be? Mr. Webb, in a letter submitted to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recommended Eric John, current U.S. ambassador to Thailand, due to his vast experience in East Asia. But Mr. Craner suggested that, among other problems, the position would be better served by someone who had more time to devote to the task, rather than one with an existing (and now, quite busy) portfolio. Mr. Bush had earlier nominated Michael Green, a former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, but he has not been confirmed by the Senate. The ideal candidate,  it seems, would have some experience in East Asian affairs, a sufficiently high profile to get access to top administration officials, and enough time to give the post the priority it deserves.

Who that will eventually be remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that the appointment will fulfill both a mandatory legal requirement as well as a much-needed political one that will theoretically benefit U.S. Myanmar policy.