WASHINGTON -- President Obama plans to name a defense official as special envoy to Myanmar who is expected to seek more help from the repressive government's neighbors in pressing for democratic reform.
But building agreement on the best way to proceed will be tricky. Southeast Asian nations have called for lifting sanctions, which the U.S. still opposes, while regional powers India and China have their own strategic relationships with Myanmar and have shown little appetite for meddling in its internal affairs.
To be confirmed by the Senate, Derek Mitchell, who is now the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, will likely have to voice support for sanctions and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. That could make it tougher for the envoy to negotiate with Myanmar's dominant military once he is in the job, said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Washington's Georgetown University.
Mitchell, a China scholar with long experience in Asia, declined to comment on his nomination, which is expected within a week and would require him to give up his current job.
But a 2007 article he co-authored in Foreign Policy magazine when he was director for Asia strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, offers clues on how he'd like to operate as envoy.
The article suggested bringing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, India, Japan and the United States together in developing a road map that would lay out benefits if Myanmar pursued true political reform and national reconciliation, and the costs it would suffer if it continued to be intransigent.
Since it was written, Myanmar has launched another bloody crackdown on democracy protesters, continued brutal military campaigns against ethnic minorities and seen thousands flee across its borders. U.S. officials also suspect Myanmar has nuclear ambitions and imported some Scud missiles from North Korea -- something Myanmar's neighbors would be worried about too.
In the past two years, the Obama administration has retained sanctions but opened the door to dialogue. But in its foreign policy, Myanmar has been eclipsed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program and recent turmoil in the Middle East, among other issues.
Lawmakers and human rights advocates have long pressed for an envoy for Myanmar to give it greater attention. After abandoning America's two-decade-long policy of isolating Myanmar, the administration has periodically sent senior officials to meet with Suu Kyi and the government, without making headway. Washington says it remains open to dialogue.
Agreeing to talk has at least removed an obstacle to U.S. engagement with ASEAN, which has become a focus for deepening American trade and security ties in the region, countering the rising power of China. In a shift, ASEAN has also voiced some criticism of recalcitrant member Myanmar and urged reform.
T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said that regional diplomacy was the best way forward, although Myanmar has so far proved deft in balancing its ties with China and India and resisting international pressure.
Steinberg said Myanmar's chief ally China in particular would view U.S. involvement with suspicion, and would likely only weigh in and call for modest reform if Myanmar faced a mass uprising or border fighting that threatened stability.
"Working with ASEAN is the only route right now," he said.
There is glimmer of an opening. After five decades of military rule, Myanmar has recently seen some political changes, albeit superficial ones. Having rejected an election victory by Suu Kyi's party in 1990, the military organized polls last year that were viewed by most of the international community as unfair. They ushered in a notionally civilian government still dominated by the military.
It has freed Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, although it outlawed her party.
Some European nations have now joined ASEAN in called for lifting sanctions -- even as rights groups, exiled Myanmar activists and some U.S. lawmakers seek to toughen them.