US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar at the end of November 2011, attracting considerable media attention because it was the first such visit by America’s top diplomat in half a century and might herald substantive political reform in a country that has suffered under the yoke of military misrule for just as long. Clinton had high-profile meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, and low-key meetings with President Thein Sein. The question is whether this is a false dawn or the beginning of a new era, one that will lead to greater political freedoms and prosperity.

Myanmar’s government facilitated the visit by making some important symbolic gestures, including the release of more than 200 political prisoners (out of 2,000), less censorship of the media, the relaxation of restrictions on NGOs, a new law permitting political protests, and promises of freedom for unions. Suspension of a $3.6 billion dam project funded by China also sent a message that the government is listening to civil society opponents of the project and that it seeks to rely less on its major backer. In addition, the government allowed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to register as a political party. These are very small steps in the right direction, but do not dispel concerns about extensive human rights abuses and constraints on political freedom. This government holds power only because of extensive election fraud in 2010, so there are good reasons to remain wary. The mechanisms of repression remain in place and the reform process remains fragile and easily reversible.

There has been a longstanding argument about the value of sanctions and the International Crisis Group has been a vociferous critic of US policy. Over the years it has argued that sanctions are counterproductive, making reforms less likely because they isolate Myanmar from the forces of change and back the rulers into a corner where conceding on reforms would look like kowtowing to foreign pressure. The recent changes, however, settle that argument rather decisively in favour of sanctions, demonstrating that they do work and the government is responding.

Thant Myint-u, author of River of Lost Footsteps and Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, has also argued against sanctions, stating that Western democracies were missing out on influencing political developments in Myanmar and were pursuing a strategy that would only boost Chinese influence, thus stifling the very reform process the US seeks to support. Moreover, the military is impervious to pressures for reform because national security trumps all other concerns.

In Thant’s view, “ … the sanctions argument is deeply flawed. First, it assumes a regime very different from the one that actually exists. That is, it assumes a government that is committed to rejoining the world economy, that sees clearly the benefits of trade and investment or is in some way sensitive to the welfare of ordinary people.”

Yet in the absence of US sanctions the government would not have made recent small concessions or promised even more. The government’s desire to lift sanctions underscores that they are an important factor in nudging it down the road to more reform.

China and India deserve no credit for this opening, while ASEAN has played a marginal role; their shared policy of constructive engagement is little more than a fig leaf for business as usual. These neighbours undermined the impact of sanctions because they were more interested in banking profits and buying natural resources. ASEAN is relieved by recent developments since it has been exasperated that Myanmar’s membership has tarnished and diminished the organisation.

Critics of US sanctions such as Robert Kaplan argue that the US is losing Mynamar to Chinese influence and thus undermining its geostrategic interests in Asia. It is too soon to tell, but the opening made by Naypyidaw towards Washington suggests that there are concerns within the top leadership about Beijing’s excessive influence. Luring the US back to the table is a balancing strategy that could play to Washington’s advantage. India and China have played a key role in insulating the regime from international pressure by propping it up through trade and investment, but Myanmar’s government is chary of its neighbours’ intentions and also nurses historical grievances against them. Anti-Chinese sentiments are openly expressed in Mandalay where the over-presence of China sparks widespread resentment.

China desires a port presence on the Indian Ocean coast of Burma just as India opposes this ambition. Large infrastructure projects in border regions are also shifting Myanmar into a pivotal Sino-Indian geostrategic role, but managing this fluid and potentially volatile situation will not be easy. Caught between Asia’s giant rivals, Myanmar has much to gain from reaching out to the US.

After a half century of economic mismanagement, political oppression and armed conflict, nobody imagines the way forward will be easy. The transition to a sustainable democracy and economic development will require considerable resources and capacity building. The countries that have been imposing sanctions must figure out how they can best give momentum to recent reforms. This will involve targeted engagement contingent on the government following through on reforms, delivering on promises, and building up other institutions of government that are necessary to effective civil administration. International financial institutions and development assistance programs can nurture the skills and expertise that Myanmar badly needs through capacity building and training programs. It is essential to reverse prolonged neglect of healthcare and education. It is also clear the military seeks to end its isolation and rebuild overseas ties; drug eradication and officer training programs could be a start.

It will take time to unravel US sanctions and this will dictate the pace of Washington’s engagement, creating opportunities to assess the degree of progress along the way. But certainly with restoration of diplomatic sanctions this is a time to show Myanmar’s government what could be possible, and improve the lives of its people, through assistance tied to reciprocal commitments to reforms. The sticks have proven their worth, but now it is time to show some carrots.