By Maung Aung Myoe
via Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs
Image Attribute: President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein of Burma at the Burma Parliament Building in Rangoon, Burma, Nov. 19, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Historically, since independence, like many other countries, Myanmar foreign policy objectives have been a combination of protecting and promoting national interests on the one hand and supporting broader global agendas of international security, peace, and development, which include disarmament, anti-colonialism, and international cooperation for friendship and economic development, on the other. 
In sum, Myanmar’s core foreign policy objectives could be safely summarized as
(1) to enhance national security,
(2) to bolster economic prosperity, and
(3) to promote a peaceful and equitable world order.
However, these objectives are occasionally prioritized depending on the internal and external political/security environment. At the same time, it is important to note that national security, state security, and regime security are always conflated in Myanmar. These objectives are designed to prevent external interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs and to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity. They are further supplemented by the endorsement of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence – namely,
(1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,
(2) mutual non-aggression,
(3) non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,
(4) respect for mutual equality and mutual benefit, and
(5) peaceful coexistence.
These foreign policy objectives remain persistent throughout the postcolonial history of Myanmar’s foreign relations.
Ever since U Thein Sein came to power in March 2011, his government has pronounced a new foreign policy objective of reintegrating Myanmar into the international community. In his inaugural speech at the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Assembly) on 30 March 2011, he outlined his government’s foreign policy as follows:
From the post-independence period to date, successive governments have practiced different political and economic policies and concepts. But, regarding the foreign affairs policy, they all exercised a non-aligned, independent, and active foreign affairs policy and dealt with other countries in line with the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. In addition, they never permitted any foreign troops to deploy within the borders of the Union. They never launched aggression against or interfered in the internal affairs of any other country. And they never posted threats to international and regional peace and security. These points are the pride of Myanmar’s foreign affairs policy.
Our government will also adhere to this honorable foreign policy and continue relations with all the countries. Moreover, our country will stand firm as a respected member of the global community while actively participating in international organisations, including the UN, ASEAN, BIMSTEC, and other regional organisations. This is why I invite and urge some nations wishing to see democracy flourish and the people’s socio-economic lives grow in Myanmar to cooperate with our new government that emerged in line with the Constitution by accepting and recognizing Myanmar’s objective conditions and ending their various forms of pressure, assistance, and encouragement to the anti-government groups and economic manipulations […]. We need to convince some nations with negative attitudes towards our democratization process that Myanmar has been committed to shaping a democratic system correctly and effectively. (Thein Sein 2011a; emphasis added)
In addition, the USDP government declared,
Our vision for Myanmar is to become a modern developed nation that meets the aspirations of its people for a better life and to achieve greater integration into the international community by 2020.
In his address to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw on 22 August 2011, Thein Sein said,
Our government has inherited a traditional foreign policy which has never been harmful to international and regional stability and security and it is maintaining friendly relations with global nations. What’s more, we are trying to stand tall as a dutiful member of the global family in international and regional organisations. (Thein Sein 2011b; emphasis added)
Similarly, a year later, at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on 27 September 2012, President Thein Sein told the international community,
Myanmar is now ushering in a new era. As a member of the family of nations, Myanmar will be participating more actively in the activities of the United Nations in various fields. Standing as a responsible and respectable nation on the world stage, we will take on the challenges of the twenty-first century in a bold and resolute manner. (Thein Sein 2012b; emphasis added)
In his State of the Union address on 1 January 2015, President Thein Sein proudly stated,
Over the past year , we have continued carrying out our objective of [Myanmar] becoming a respectable, dutiful, and responsible country of the family of nations by breaking out from international sanctions and isolation. We have managed to start casting an international network essential for our country. We are walking on our own path of possessing a foreign policy of active and friendly-with-all in the world communities. By building the strongest possible relations with all countries in the world, and [particularly] with all great powers, we can bring best benefit for our fellow country people. (Thein Sein 2015)
It was obvious that the reintegration of Myanmar into the international community is a key policy message and a primary objective or goal of the new USDP government.
Why did the USDP government pursue a foreign policy objective of reintegration into the international community?
There are at least three reasons that could have led the USDP leadership pursue this new foreign policy objective.
First, it is about the legitimacy of the government. As a constitutionally elected government, the USDP leadership appears to understand the importance of political legitimacy and, to a certain extent, it enjoys domestic legitimacy. For the sake of wider legitimacy, there is evidence that the USDP has co-opted ethnic parties into the electoral and parliamentary processes. Therefore, the USDP government is more confident in its conduct of external relations and it is also eager to seek international legitimacy to complement the domestic one.
Second, it is about a sense of responsibility. Members of the USDP leadership, most of whom worked in the previous military regime, seem to understand that their country was viewed by the international community as a pariah state and that they should do their best to put their country back on the international stage when opportunities arise. The country’s badly damaged international image might have impacted the psyche of the USDP leadership.
Third, it is about image. The USDP government projects itself as a reformist government and is sending signals that it is different from the past regime and that its policies, especially in the area of foreign relations, will be different from those of the previous regime. In other words, the USDP government’s message is that it is ready to change the country’s international image of a client state.
About the Author:
Maung Aung Myoe is a professor at the International University of Japan. His research focuses on foreign policy and civil–military relations in Myanmar. His recent publications include “The Soldier and the State: The Tatmadaw and Political Liberalization in Myanmar since 2011”, in: South East Asia Research (22, 2, August 2014) and “Legacy or Overhang: Historical Memory in Myanmar–Thai Relations”, in: N. Ganesan (ed.), Bilateral Legacies in East and Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS Press, 2015).
Cite this Article:
Myoe, Maung Aung (2016), Myanmar’s Foreign Policy under the USDP Government: Continuities and Changes, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35, 1, 133–135.
Published by GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of Asian Studies and Hamburg University Press in The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs which is an Open Access publication under the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
 For instance, at the United Nations General Assembly on 27 August 2012, President Thein Sein stated that one of the basic tenets of Myanmar’s foreign policy is to actively contribute towards the maintenance of international peace and security (Thein Sein 2012a).