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Myanmar - Foreign Relations

President U Thein SeinWith regard to foreign relations, the new President U Thein Sein reiterated that Myanmar will continue to pursue non-aligned, independent and active foreign policy and also stated that Myanmar will work with the international community in nation building. Representatives of the United Nations and International Agencies visited Myanmar and met with the responsible officials. High level officials from the United States and the European Union that had less contact in the past also visited Myanmar. At the same time leaders of friendly neighbouring countries China and India, and ASEAN Member States paid official visits to Myanmar and Myanmar's leaders also made return visits to these countries.

During the Cold War, Burmese foreign policy was based on principles of neutrality, often tending toward xenophobia. Since 1988, however, Burma has expanded its regional ties. It now is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and several other regional organizations and initiatives. Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, and has participated in that regional forum, hosting a number of seminars, conferences, and ministerial meetings. Burma also is a member of the World Trade Organization. Burma's lack of progress on human rights and democracy has frayed some international ties, and in July 2005, Burma passed up its scheduled 2006 ASEAN chairmanship.

Although Burmese-Thai relations are generally cooperative, they have been tainted by a long history of border conflicts and sporadic hostilities over narcotics trafficking and insurgents operating along the Burmese-Thai border. Nonetheless, official and unofficial economic ties remain strong. In addition to the approximately 150,000 Burmese refugees it hosts, the Thai Government issues temporary work permits to another one million Burmese who live outside the refugee camps in Thailand. Despite their often-contentious histories, Burma has grown closer to both China and India in recent years. China quickly is becoming Burma's most important partner, offering debt relief, economic development grants, and soft loans used for the construction of infrastructure and light industry. China also is purportedly Burma's major supplier of arms and munitions. Burma's commercial and military ties with India are growing as well. India is a primary destination for exports of Burmese beans and pulses. The military relationship between Burma and North Korea has come under increased scrutiny by the international community. The United States and others have urged Burma to be transparent in its relationship with North Korea to give the international community confidence Burma is not violating its international obligations, particularly with respect to implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874.

The UN has made several efforts to address international concerns over human rights in Burma. The UN Secretary General's first Special Envoy to Burma, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, resigned his position in December 2005 due to the regime's lack of cooperation. Subsequently, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon named former UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari as his Special Advisor for Burma. Special Advisor Gambari made eight trips to Burma. At the end of 2009, Special Advisor Gambari was named the Secretary General's Special Envoy to Sudan. Acting Special Advisor to the Secretary General Vijay Nambiar traveled to Burma in November 2010 and again in May 2011. The UN Human Rights Council has a special procedure in place for Burma, and Tomas Ojea Quintana was appointed Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar in 2008. Burmese authorities have denied Quintana access to Burma since a March 2010 report in which he called on the United Nations to consider establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry for Burma.

In January 2007, the United States and the U.K. sponsored a UN Security Council resolution on Burma calling on the regime to cease attacks on ethnic minorities, engage in political dialogue, and allow for basic human rights, that both Russia and China vetoed. The UN Security Council adopted by consensus a Presidential Statement on October 11, 2007, deploring the September 2007 crackdown and calling for the release of all political prisoners and the creation of the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue. The UN Security Council issued a press statement on the crackdown on November 14, 2007. In November 2007, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was allowed to visit the country for the first time since 2003. His report detailing the Burmese authorities' September crackdown on demonstrations by monks and democracy activists and the severe reprisals was released on December 11, 2007. Tomas Ojea Quintana replaced Pinheiro on May 1, 2008. On May 2, 2008, the Security Council issued a second Presidential Statement calling for the Burmese regime to conduct the referendum on its draft constitution in a free and fair manner.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon visited Burma in May 2008 and called on the regime to grant greater access for international aid to cyclone-affected areas of the country. On May 22, 2009, the Security Council released a press statement expressing concern over the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi and reiterating its call for dialogue. In July 2009 the UN Secretary General again visited Burma but was not permitted to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. In a speech to the diplomatic community, he noted the regime's "missed opportunity." On August 13, 2009, the Security Council released another press statement expressing its serious concern over Aung San Suu Kyi's conviction and sentencing and the political impact of those events. UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana reiterated concerns about the human rights situation in Burma after a February 2010 visit to the country. He subsequently recommended to the UN Human Rights Council that the UN should consider establishing a Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

Most Western foreign aid diminished in the wake of the regime's suppression of the democracy movement in 1988. The UN Development Program's 2009 Human Development Report indicated that official development assistance totaled $242.8 million in 2007, roughly $4 per capita (compared with $68 per person in Laos and $46 per person in Cambodia). Burma receives grants of technical assistance (mostly from Asia), limited humanitarian aid and debt relief from Japan and China, and concessional loans from China and India. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the international community has provided more than $343 million to Burma in response to the UN appeal for humanitarian relief. The United States has provided nearly $85 million to date in assistance for Cyclone Nargis recovery efforts.

Burma became a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 1952, the International Financial Corporation (IFC) in 1956, the International Development Association (IDA) in 1962, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1973. Since July 1987, the World Bank has not made any loans to Burma. Since 1998 Burma has been in non-accrual status with the Bank. The IMF performs its mandated annual Article IV consultations, but there are no IMF assistance programs. Burma is involved in the ADB's Program of Economic Cooperation in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. As such, it participates in regional meetings and workshops supported by the ADB, although it has not received loans or grants since 1986. Bilateral technical assistance ended in 1988. Burma has not serviced its ADB loans since January 1998. Burma's total foreign debt now stands at over $9 billion. The debt total to Japan alone is reportedly $4.7 billion. The United States maintains sanctions against Burma that prohibit U.S. support for lending and technical assistance by international financial institutions in Burma.

The shift in US relations with Burma from diplomatic isolation to increasing engagement, is part of increased diplomatic focus from Asia’s other major powers, US allies India and Japan. While the US claims this shift is a natural response to democratic reforms in the nation, China views diplomatic engagement as part of the “strategic framework” of the US pivot towards Asia. An isolated Burma was heavily reliant on China, and this gave China significant diplomatic leverage in South East Asia. A broadly engaged Burma could be strategically problematic for China’s interests in the region.

Beijing was a key backer of Myanmar's military junta while it was under Western sanctions, but since taking power in March 2011, Myanmar's reformist government has sought to decrease the heavy dependence on China. Since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed, there have been a number of protests in Burma against Chinese development projects that the local people feel are impacting badly on them. Also, there are a number of people in Burma who resent so much Chinese economic presence in their country. Relations between the governments of Burma and China have not been as good as they used to be under the old military dictatorship.

In March 2015, the conflict in Myanmar between the ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels and the Burmese army began spilling over into Yunnan, China. Two incidents of reported casualties and damage from bombings by the Burmese inside China drew a sharp reaction from Beijing. Myanmar said the incidents were unintentional, but the Chinese have demanded Myanmar investigate the bombings, apologize and pay indemnities to the victims.

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