Last week, America’s new special envoy to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, wrapped up a five-day visit to the country, during which he spoke to ministers, senior officials and opposition leaders.
He was trying, he said, to determine how “the United States can support and promote democracy, human rights, development and national reconciliation” in Myanmar.
It was all hugely encouraging on many fronts.
Firstly, Mitchell, who is not a career diplomat and was formerly an analyst at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has been given the rank of ambassador.
This is significant because it means the US has effectively resumed proper diplomatic relations with Myanmar.
In 1988, after the violent military takeover following dictator Ne Win’s demise, Washington degraded its ties and replaced its ambassador with a charge d’affaires.
It was a stupid and short-sighted move that was not even replicated by the British, let alone the Australian, French, German or Italian missions in Yangon.
As a result, the Americans lost their access to regime sources and their intelligence on the ground was minimal, as journalists like myself soon discovered.
When trying to suss out what was going on, reporters skipped the US embassy and headed off to see the Australians, Japanese or Singaporeans.
Mitchell now has a golden opportunity to change all that. He may be non-resident, but he is America’s point man for future dealings with Myanmar and he is top notch.
More importantly, he is open-minded, as I can attest after interviewing him many times during my stint as a bureau chief in Washington.
Perhaps most significantly, he is not a Myanmar specialist – his past focus has been on Chinese and Korean affairs.
So he has not been marinated in the sour double-speak that has passed for Washington’s policy on Myanmar for far too long.
That was evident in his upfront praise for the “excellent hospitality” he received in Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw, and the “quality and openness of the exchanges” he had with ministers and officials.
Other senior American figures are starting to come round. Last week, Senator Jim Webb, chair of the East Asia congressional sub-committtee, said there was a new openness in Myanmar and that the US should “adjust our policy” accordingly.
With Washington opening up Mitchell’s ambassadorial level dialogue, and Naypyidaw holding minister-level talks with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, clearly that adjustment has started.
Mitchell praised the overture to Suu Kyi and urged the government to show its sincerity by “releasing all political prisoners unconditionally”.
Of course, they should be released, as they should across the region, especially in Vietnam where repression of dissent is worse than in Myanmar.
In fact, reliable sources now confirm that after Myanmar’s new parliament recently passed a motion recommending the release of political detainees, a good number will be freed this month.
Among them, I hope, will be my good friend Hkun Htun Oo, or “Noel”, the head of the Shan National League for Democracy.
Meantime, Suu Kyi will be unmolested and free to travel, and her NLD party, despite being declared illegal, can to continue to function.
In return, she will cooperate and support a move to bring in the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund.
If that happens, look for an economic take-off.
As the Washington academic David Steinberg noted on Friday: “In 1988, Myanmar had foreign exchange reserves of only $30 million; it now has $5 billion, largely from the sale of natural gas to Thailand.”
When two Chinese oil and gas pipelines come on-stream shortly, those reserves will vastly increase, and when the $8.6 billion Dawei port and petrochemical complex starts up, revenue will further
Said Steinberg: “For the US to continue to call for isolation of that country seems patently counter-productive to the reality of the present and the prognosis for the future.”
He is absolutely right.