Fashioning a Forward-Looking Approach on Burma Part II

Promoting Political Freedoms in Burma:
International Policy Options

Understanding international options

Promotion of democracy in Burma is a justifiable goal because that ethnically fractious country cannot indefinitely be held together by brute force. The empowerment of its masses is imperative to create a grassroots stake in Burma’s unity and territorial integrity. Genuine participatory processes are also necessary to promote ethnic reconciliation in a country internally scarred from long years of sectarian strife.

Yet, even among those who share this goal, one sees an interesting, even if nuanced, split: Europeans and Americans tend to emphasize the primacy of principles over strategic considerations, while Asians seem to favor engagement and a softer approach. To be sure, there is no common Asian approach. Differences over Burma are subtle yet eye-catching among the Asian players, with some states (like India and Japan) gently pushing the junta toward political reconciliation and democratic opening, and some others (such as China) viewing democracy advocacy by the West as national-interest promotion by other means. Still, the imperatives of proximity impel states in the neighborhood not to rely on an approach centered on penal action against and the isolation of Burma. Similarly, the U.S. and the European Union have far from a common approach. The U.S., under President George W. Bush, has moved to a sanctions-only approach toward Burma, while the EU, despite widening its own sanctions since last year, is keen to keep open channels of dialogue and humanitarian assistance.

Distance from Burma has been a crucial factor in determining major players’ approach toward that country. The greater a state’s geographical distance from Burma, the more ready for action it has been on Burma. And the shorter a state’s distance from Burma, the greater the caution and tact in its policy.

Burma’s present problems (and impoverishment) can be traced back to the politically cataclysmic events of 1962, when the military under General Ne Win ousted an elected government and thereafter sought to introduce autarky by cutting off the country from the rest of the world. If Burma has gone from being Asia’s rice bowl to becoming a virtual pauper state, the blame has to fall on the 1962 coup and what it introduced. Ne Win, a devotee of Marx and Stalin, banned most external trade and investment, nationalized companies, halted all foreign projects and tourism, and kicked out expatriates engaged in business. Yet the West, not unhappy that the military had ousted a founding leader of the non-alignment movement, Prime Minister U Nu, imposed no sanctions on Burma. Over the subsequent years, Ne Win fashioned a virtual one-man dictatorship under his authority.

More than a quarter-century later, even the bloodbath of 1998 that left several thousand student-led demonstrators dead or injured did not invite Western sanctions. That bloodbath coincided with the numerology-dedicated Ne Win’s public announcement of retirement on the ‘most auspicious’ day of August 8, 1988 (8.8.88). Time will tell whether China, also addicted to the power of number 8, is courting trouble 20 years later by launching the Beijing Olympics on 8.8.08 at 8.08 am. In Burma, for the democratic opposition, 8.8.88 symbolized the launch of the democracy movement. Its 20th anniversary thus will be commemorated on the same day the Beijing Olympics kick off with an opening ceremony that some world leaders are threatening to boycott over the brutal repression in Tibet.

In fact, the events of 1988 triggered a stronger response from India and Japan than from the West. India, with missionary zeal, began cutting off all contact with the junta in the post-1988 period and started giving sanctuary to Burmese dissidents. Such righteous activism, heightened by the junta’s subsequent July 1989 detention of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has had close ties with India since her student days,[14] however, cost India dear. By the mid-1990s, China had strategically penetrated Burma, opening a new flank against India. The sobering lessons from a decade of foreign-policy activism on Burma post-1988 has helped instill greater geopolitical activism in India’s approach in recent years.

Japan, for its part, suspended its Overseas Development Assistance to Burma, following the 1988 developments. And when in 1992 Japan adopted an ODA charter espousing human rights and democracy, that provision was first invoked against Burma to slash ODA. Since then, Japanese ODA has been limited largely to humanitarian and technical assistance. While Japanese ODA to Burma had averaged $154.8 million a year during the period 1978-88, it has fallen to an average of $36.7 million a year between 1996 and 2005, according to official Japanese figures. With China eclipsing Japan as the largest aid provider, Tokyo has seen its traditional influence in Burma wane.

The military has been in power in Burma for 46 long years.[15] But the Western penal approach toward Burma began shaping up only in the 1990s. In fact, it was not until this decade that Burma became a major target of U.S. sanctions, reflected in the congressional passage of the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act and the enforcement of several subsequent punitive executive orders dating up to May 1, 2008.[16] 

Some U.S. measures put in place against the junta before 2003 included a ban on new investment and an American veto on any proposed loan or assistance by international financial institutions. That ban on new U.S. investments was imposed as far back as 1997 — the same year the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) admitted Burma as a member. The Clinton administration could take that decision in 1997 because at that time the United States had minimal trade with Burma and a total investment of only $225 million.[17] Apart from Burma’s opium produce having a bearing on U.S. counternarcotics policy, that country was not a serious foreign-policy concern in Washington.

Indeed, until the advent of the Bush administration, Burma was not among the key targets of sanctions, with the broadest U.S. sanctions being directed at countries identified as supporting terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan. In a September 1998 report to the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) had identified 142 provisions in 42 federal laws applying unilateral economic sanctions against some countries. Some of the provisions were directed against Burma, but that country wasn’t among the key U.S. targets.[18]

Even though there was considerable evidence through the 1990s that the unilateral sanctions approach introduced by the Clinton administration wasn’t helping to loosen the military’s grip on Burma,[19] the U.S. considerably broadened its penal actions in this decade under Bush. The bilateral and multilateral measures mandated by the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act[20] have led to the U.S. imposition of a ban on all imports from that country, combined with an array of other sanctions. But as the State Department has admitted, the U.S. “import ban implemented in 2003 would be far more effective if countries importing Burma’s high-value exports (such as natural gas and timber) … would join us in our actions.”[21]

While a number of nations have slapped sanctions on Burma, especially after the brutal way the September 2007 monk-led protests were suppressed, the blunt fact is that no nation thus far has emulated the extent to which United States has gone in imposing penal actions. In fact, the history of U.S. sanctions against Burma since 1997 has followed a now-familiar pattern in U.S. policy — first imposing an array of unilateral sanctions against a pariah regime, then discovering that the sanctions aren’t working and, therefore, turning to allies and partners to join in the penal campaign, and finally threatening sanctions against firms from third countries if those nations refuse to toe the U.S. line.

As far as the Burma-related international sanctions are concerned, their history underscores the manner the penal approach got shaped not by a cause — bringing an end to the military rule — but by the political travails of an iconic personality, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s founding father, Aung San, the Japanese-trained commander of the Burmese Independence Army. Suu Kyi, having been accidentally thrown into the vortex of national politics in autumn 1988,[22] has helped inspire and mold the Western punitive approach toward Burma.

The junta’s detention of her from July 1989 onward and its refusal to honor the people’s verdict in the May 1990 national elections brought Suu Kyi to the center of world attention, with she receiving several international awards in quick succession — the Rafto Human Rights Prize in October 1990; the European Parliament’s Sakharov Human Rights Prize in July 1991; and the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1991. A major trigger in galvanizing international opinion was clearly the junta’s brazen refusal to cede power despite the May 1990 national elections, which gave the detained Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party 59 percent of the votes but 82 percent of the seats in Parliament. By keeping her in detention for nearly 13 of the past 19 years, the junta has itself contributed to building Suu Kyi as an international symbol of the Burmese struggle for political freedoms.

The personality-shaped nature of the sanctions approach can also be explained by the fact that before Suu Kyi, there was no unifying figure to challenge the military’s domination in all spheres of the state and to lead a national movement for the restoration of democracy. The Nobel prize greatly increased her international profile and domestic clout. Western aid cutoffs and other penal actions thus began only in the period after the junta refused to honor the results of the 1990 elections.

How a personality can help shape the sanctions approach was further underlined by the way Suu Kyi’s personal rapport with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright helped spur President Bill Clinton to reluctantly impose a ban in 1997 on new American investments to develop Burma’s resources. That ban was slapped even though international pressure, and the Clinton administration’s own intervention, had made the junta to release Suu Kyi in July 1995 after six years in house detention.

Not only has the sanctions approach been personality-driven, but also a personality hue has been put even on the internal struggle in Burma. That struggle has been portrayed, simplistically, as a battle between Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta’s reclusive chairman, General Than Shwe, a fight between good and evil, and a tussle between the forces of freedom and the forces of ruthlessness. While such a portrayal is useful to draw international attention to a remote country that is peripheral to the interests of all except its neighbors, it helps obscure the complex and multifaceted realities on the ground.

Despite Suu Kyi’s central role in shining a constant international spotlight for 19 years on the military’s repressive and illegitimate rule, the grim reality is that years of tightening sanctions against Burma haven’t helped loosen the military’s vise on polity and society. If anything, the sanctions have only worsened the plight of ordinary Burmese. Far from the people gaining political freedoms, an again-detained Suu Kyi’s personal freedom has remained an outstanding issue. While the ordinary Burmese have been the main losers, the international approach has proven a strategic boon for China, creating much-desired space for it to expand its interests in and leverage over Burma. That has happened largely at the expense of the interests of democratic states, which, in any event, have continued to pursue varying, and at times conflicting, policies on Burma. Against this background, what should be a realistic, yet productive, approach toward Burma?

Burma now ranks as one of the world’s most isolated and sanctioned nations — a situation unlikely to be changed by the Constitutional process and other steps in the junta-touted “roadmap to democracy,” unless the international community under the U.S. leadership adopts a fresh approach toward that country.

There has been a proliferation in recent years of indexes developed by research institutions that seek to rank countries in terms of their comparative vulnerabilities and weaknesses, including state failure, repression, corruption and disparities. What is striking about Burma is that it ranks in all the indexes as among the most corrupt and dysfunctional states. And yet its state machinery seems strong enough to wage unrelenting political repression and persecution of ethnic minorities.

The annual Failed States Index (FSI) prepared by the independent, Washington-based group, The Fund for Peace, for example, employs 12 social, economic, political and military indicators to rank 177 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration. It is based on the capacities of core state institutions to mitigate adverse trends promoting state instability. The 2007 index ranks Burma among the top 20 unstable states prone to violent conflict and societal dysfunction.[23] Sudan tops the rankings as the state most at risk of failure. But four states in southern Asia figure in the top 20 dysfunctional states: Afghanistan at No. 8, Pakistan (No. 12), Burma (No. 14) and Bangladesh (No. 16). That shows that symptoms of state failure are acute in this part of the world.

Similarly, the Brookings Institution’s new Index of State Weakness in the Developing World ranks Burma as the 17th weakest state among the 141 countries it assessed, with Somalia, at the No. 1 position, symbolizing an utterly failed state and the Slovak Republic (at the top of the ladder, No. 141) representing a successful democracy.[24] Burma was identified as one of five critically weak states outside sub-Saharan Africa.

In the World Press Freedom Index, [25] Burma ranks No. 163 in the 167-nation list. Without freedom of expression, no process of democratization can begin. Burma’s leaders are not just autocrats; like other repressive rulers in Asia, they believe in the indispensability and virtues of autocracy.

They have used the threat of Balkanization to justify their stranglehold on politics. The military sees itself as the only institution that can keep Burma united. Preventing the splintering of the country, however, has come at a heavy price. It was the military’s autarkic policies and gross economic mismanagement post-1962 that spurred widespread poverty and the flight of capital from the country.

According to Transparency International, Burma and Somalia are on par as the most corrupt countries in the world.[26] The Berlin-based Transparency International, as part of its annual survey of corruption (which it defines as the abuse of public office for private gain), publishes an index of countries ranked from the least corrupt to the most corrupt, on a scale of 10 to 0, with 10 representing no corruption and 0 signifying total sleaze and bribery. Its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index brings out the growing problem of corruption in Asia. Among the most corrupt states in the index was Burma’s neighbor, Bangladesh. That the poorest states of Asia like Bangladesh and Burma are also the most corrupt only shows that corruption is both a cause of poverty as well as a hindrance to the amelioration of the conditions of the impoverished people.

The key point arising from the various indexes is that Burma is a pretty dysfunctional state with corroding institutions and an oversized military that dominates all spheres of national activity. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, it has been increasingly recognized that the threats to international peace and security now emanate more and more from the world’s weakest states. Tellingly, two of the world’s critically weak states, North Korea and Pakistan, are members of the nuclear club. It has become routine for the major players and the United Nations to reiterate their commitment to pull critically weak nations back from the precipice of state failure.

It is that argument — to stabilize a failing state — that the Bush administration has applied to pour some $11 billion as aid since 9/11 into terror-exporting Pakistan, ranked No. 33 in the Brookings’ Index of State Weakness in the Developing World. Reinforcing that argument, it is now considering throwing its weight behind Senator Joseph Biden’s call for a $2.5 billion package of additional nonmilitary aid to improve the lives of citizens in a country where the military has dominated all walks of life almost since Pakistan’s creation in 1947.

Can a different logic or argument be applied to Burma, one of the world’s weakest and most dysfunctional states that potentially poses a serious transnational security threat unless steps are taken to help stabilize its economy? Or should the stabilization of a failing state only begin when that country actually starts posing — like Pakistan — a threat to international security?

It is obvious that the international responses to separate cases of failing states need not be cut from the same cloth because every nation’s situation tends to be different from the others. Still, the undeniable fact is that Burma represents a case of grave state corrosion, with international sanctions having had the effect, however unintended, to lower the living standards of ordinary Burmese.

Another question relates to the extent to which sanctions should be employed? Should punitive actions preclude engagement? Without the Bush administration engaging Pyongyang, to give just one example, would it have been possible to achieve the progress, however tentative it might seem at this stage, on the North Korean nuclear program? It is nobody’s case that Burma is worse than North Korea.

Sanctions by themselves do not usually promote political freedoms and indeed, by ignoring humanitarian concerns, may help a regime to instill a sense of victimhood and shore up domestic support. Nor can just engagement be the answer. The notion that democracy is sure to follow if a country is integrated with the global economy has been disproved by China. The more economic and military power China has accumulated, the more sophisticated it has become in repressing at home, including through electronic surveillance and intimidation.

If freedom is to bloom in more countries, it is imperative to fashion a more principled, coherent, forward-looking international approach that objectively calibrates sanctions and engagement, and allows outside actors to actively influence developments within.

So what are the international options?

Despite its predatory military elite continuing to monopolize power, Burma does exhibit severe state weaknesses. Those vulnerabilities make continued international sanctions against it attractive, in order that its military is compelled to return to the barracks. Yet, years of sanctions have helped underscore the limits of securing significant results through punitive pressures alone.

Options still available to the international community will become clearer if we clinically assess our successes and failures vis-à-vis Burma thus far.

· Have economic disengagement from Burma and other punitive actions helped improve human rights in Burma?

· Has outside role helped, directly or indirectly, to improve the living conditions of the ordinary Burmese or to loosen the military’s political grip?

· By targeting vital sectors of the Burmese economy, to what extent have international sanctions helping choke the flow of funds to the military?

· What objective is served when disengagement blocks the flow of liberal ideas as well as investment and technology to improve working conditions?

· As shown in China, doesn’t foreign investment help build private institutions, boost employment and wages, aid civil-society development and exert a pro-reforms influence on a regime?

· Has the sanctions approach helped increase or decrease external influence over the Burmese regime?

· Given the waves of sanctions in recent years, what additional room is left to step up pressure on a recalcitrant junta? Have most cards already been played out?

· Does the current approach centered on the primacy of sanctions provide the junta a convenient scapegoat for its own gross mismanagement of the economy?

· By isolating Burma and forcing its regime to turn increasingly for succor to more-entrenched autocracies, are we promoting a regional power balance or imbalance?

· To what extent will a weaker, more dysfunctional Burma pose transnational security threats or cause difficulties in international counternarcotics and counterterrorist efforts?

In addition to our options being shaped by our answers to the aforesaid questions, there is also one larger issue that needs to be factored in. International options on Burma not only need to be realistic, but also be based on principles and positions valid for promotion of a transition to democracy in other autocratic settings.

What role outsiders can play to help democracy take roots remains a difficult issue internationally. Yet that issue looms large in relation to Asia. Unlike Europe where democracy has become the norm, only 16 of Asia’s 39 countries surveyed by Freedom House are really free.[27]

As shown by the World Press Freedom Index by the Paris-based international rights group, Reporters Without Borders, a number of Asian countries are among the worst suppressors of freedom. In the 167-nation list, North Korea ranked at the very bottom, Burma 163rd, China 159th, Vietnam 158th, Laos and Uzbekistan 155th, Bangladesh 151st, Pakistan 150th, Singapore 140th and the Philippines 139th.[28]

Bringing in comparative assessments will also help sculpt down-to-earth international options. Let’s look at one revealing comparative picture. Until the September 2007 protests in Rangoon and other Burmese cities and the March 2008 Tibetan uprising, Burma and China had been free of any major pro-freedom protests for about two decades. The previous major pro-freedom demonstrations occurred in Burma in 1988, and in China in 1989.

In 2007, in a two-month period, fuel price increases were announced first in Burma and then in China. The junta’s announcement on August 15, 2007, to double the price of gasoline, diesel fuel and compressed gas hit the ordinary Burmese hard by forcing up the price of public transport and triggering a knock-on effect on staples such as rice and cooking oil. That triggered protests, which became bigger by the day, with monks gradually joining in from early September and the demonstrations acquiring increasingly a political color as an expression of the grassroots anger against military rule. So, it was the rise in energy prices that paradoxically triggered the biggest protests since the 1988 uprising in an energy-rich country.[29] By contrast, the fuel price increases in China — announced just eight weeks after Burma — sparked only a few sporadic incidents of violence, with one person killed in Hainan Island, but spurring no pro-freedom protests.

Why fuel price increases triggered mass protests in one state but not in the other owes a lot to the fact that China had transformed itself radically in the past two decades since the Tiananmen Square massacre, while Burma remains isolated, impoverished and battered by sanctions. The post-Tiananmen international trade sanctions against China did not last long on the argument that they were hurting ordinary Chinese and that engagement was a better way to bring about political change. That was the correct approach. Had an approach pivoted on widening punitive actions been pursued, would China have emerged to the same degree as a dynamic economy that today serves as a growth locomotive for the world? Through its economic transformation, China has made its political modernization inescapable, although no one can predict when and in what form that would happen.

The same principle, however, was never applied to impoverished Burma, creating an unhealthy impression that promotion of freedom has become a diplomatic instrument to target not the world’s biggest autocracies but weak, unpopular, isolated states.[30] Sanctions against a jihad-bankrolling Saudi Arabia or a Tibet-repressing China would bring economic pain in the form of higher oil prices or job losses. So “it is the small or economically vulnerable kids on the global bloc, like Burma and Cuba … that will continue to be the targets of sanctions,” even if “innocent civilians living in those countries” suffer.[31]

While the military has ruled Burma for 46 years, the Chinese Communist Party has monopolized power for 59 years. Neither model is sustainable. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. At issue, though, is the role the free world can play in promoting a democratic transition in such states.

This issue has again been highlighted in comparative terms by the contrasting international responses to the monk-led freedom protests in Tibet and Burma. In fact, there are striking similarities between Tibet and Burma — both are strategically located, endowed with rich natural resources, suffering under long-standing repressive rule, resisting hard power with soft power, and facing an influx of Han settlers. Yet the international responses to the brutal crackdowns on monk-led protests in Tibet and Burma have been a study in contrast.

When the Burmese crackdown on peaceful protestors in Rangoon last September left at least 31 people dead — according to a UN special rapporteur’s report[32] — it ignited international indignation and a fresh wave of U.S.-led sanctions. More than seven months later, the tepid global response to China’s ongoing harsh crackdown in Tibet has raised the question whether that country has accumulated such international power as to escape even censure over actions that are more repressive and wide-ranging than what Burma witnessed.[33] Despite growing international appeals to Beijing to respect Tibetans’ human rights and cultural identity and begin true dialogue with the Dalai Lama, there has been no call for any penal action, however mild, against China.

When the Burmese generals cracked down on monks and their pro-democracy supporters, the outside world watched vivid images of brutality, thanks to citizen reporters using the Internet. The photograph of a Japanese videographer fatally shot on a Rangoon street was flashed across the world; it is a picture that defined the events of that month when police used baton charges and tear gas on monks and fellow protesters and then opened fire. On the worst day of violence — September 27, 2007 — authorities admitted nine deaths while unofficial figures were higher.

In contrast, China employs tens of thousands of cyberpolice to censor Web sites, patrol cybercafes, monitor text and video messages from cellular phones, and hunt down Internet activists. As a result, the outside world has yet to see a single haunting image of the Chinese use of brute force against Tibetans. The only images released by Beijing are those that seek to show Tibetans in bad light, as engaged in arson and other attacks.

The powerful Internet poses a bigger threat to repressive governments than pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets, if such protests are allowed at all. Seeking to fight fire with fire, some authoritarian regimes have clamped down on the Internet, closing blogger sites and employing sophisticated filtering software to block Web sites that carry references to ‘subversive’ words. Such regimes have proven that a country can blend control, coercion and patronage to stymie the politically liberalizing elements of market forces, especially when the state still has a hold over large parts of the economy.

The important parallels between Burma and Tibet begin with the fact that Burma’s majority citizens — the ethnic Burmans — are of Tibetan stock. But the Han demographic invasion of the Tibetan plateau is spilling over into Burma, with the Chinese presence conspicuous in Mandalay city and the areas to the northeast. Because of the growing Chinese commercial interests in Burma, the September 2007 street protests indeed had an underlying anti-Chinese tenor.

It is significant that the resistance against repressive rule in both Tibet and Burma is led by iconic Nobel laureates, one living in exile in India and the other under house detention for long in Rangoon. The Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel peace prize in quick succession for the same reason: for leading a non-violent struggle, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Each, a symbol of soft power, has built such moral authority as to command wide international respect and influence.

It has been announced that President Bush would soon sign legislation conferring Congress’s highest civilian honor to Suu Kyi, just months after he had personally presented the same prize — the Congressional Gold Medal — to the Dalai Lama. Suu Kyi, in fact, married a scholar in Tibetan and Himalayan studies, Michael Aris. With Aris, a Briton, Suu Kyi edited a book on Tibetan studies in honor of Hugh Richardson, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism.[34]

Yet another parallel is that heavy repression has failed to break the resistance to autocratic rule in both Tibet and Burma. If anything, growing authoritarianism has begun to backfire, as the popular revolts in Tibet and Burma have highlighted. More than half a century after Tibet’s annexation, the Tibetan struggle stands out as one of the longest and most-powerful resistance movements in modern world history. The latest Tibetan revolt, significantly, coincided with the Chinese legislature re-electing as president Hu Jintao, who as Tibet’s martial-law administrator suppressed the last major Tibetan uprising in 1989.

Similarly, despite detaining Suu Kyi for nearly 13 of the past 19 years, the Burmese junta has failed to muzzle the grassroots democracy movement, as last September’s bloody events showed. Democracy offers the only path to bringing enduring stability to ethnically troubled Burma. Indeed, ethnic warfare there began no sooner than General Aung San had persuaded the smaller nationalities to join the union.

The importance of Tibet and Burma also comes from their strategic location and rich natural resources. The Tibetan plateau makes up one-fourth of China’s landmass. Annexation has given Beijing access to that region’s immense mineral wealth and water resources. Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude have endowed it with the world’s greatest river systems. Most of Asia’s major rivers originate in the Tibetan plateau and their waters are a lifeline to 47 percent of the global population living in South and Southeast Asia and China.

The key difference between Tibet and Burma is that the repression in the former is by an occupying power. Months after the 1949 communist takeover in Beijing, China’s People’s Liberation Army entered what was effectively a sovereign nation in full control of its own affairs. Instead of granting the promised autonomy to Tibetans, Beijing has actually done the opposite: It has broken up Tibet as it existed before the annexation and sought to reduce Tibetans to a minority in the truncated Tibet through the state-supported relocation of millions of Han Chinese. It has gerrymandered Tibet by making Amdo (the present Dalai Lama’s birthplace) as the Qinghai province and merging eastern Kham into its provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu.

The contrasting international responses to the repression in Burma and Tibet highlight an inconvenient truth: the principle that engagement is better than punitive action to help change state behavior is applied just to the powerful autocratic countries, while sanctions are a favored tool to try and tame the weak. While animpoverished Burma reels under tightening sanctions, a booming China openly mocks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fact is that the more you punish the weak renegade states, the more the big autocracies tend to gain commercially and strategically. With its ability to provide political protection through its UN veto power, Beijing, in recent years, has signed tens of billions of dollars worth of energy and arms contracts with pariah regimes — from Burma and Iran to Sudan and Venezuela.

As resource-rich Burma remains mired in abject poverty under a brutal military regime that refuses to loosen its political grip despite widening international sanctions, it has become necessary to fashion a forward-looking international approach that allows outside actors, far from shutting themselves off from Burma, to seek to influence developments within. The present disjointed international approach (if it can be called an “approach”) underscores the need both for greater multilateral coordination on Burma and for engagement aimed at increasing external influence within Burma.

Today, under the cumulative weight of sanctions, Burma is coming full circle: Its 74-year-old junta head, the delusional Senior General Than Shwe, has amassed powers to run a virtual one-man dictatorship in Ne Win-style. Also, in the period since the free world began implementing boycotts, trade bans, aid cutoffs and other sanctions, it has seen its leverage over Burma erode. The situation thus calls for a more calibrated approach that entails refining the sanctions tool to achieve better-targeted sanctions and to create space to influence developments through engagement. Even as it has become fashionable to talk about better-targeted sanctions, the sanctions instrument, in reality, has become blunter against Burma.

Sanctions were intended to help the people of Burma, yet today it is the ordinary people that bear the brunt of the sanctions. The stepped-up punitive actions in the face of a deteriorating humanitarian situation are holding the Burmese people “economic hostage,” as Burmese author Ma Thanegi told Stanley A. Weiss in an interview.[35]

As far back as 2003, then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley had warned in congressional testimony that many female garment workers made jobless by sanctions were being driven into prostitution. Yet, in its 2004 report to Congress, the State Department actually boasted that U.S. actions had shut down more than 100 garment factories in the previous year alone, with “an estimated loss of around 50,000 to 60,000 jobs.”[36] In the international effort to help build democracy in Burma — believe it or not — the big losers have been those on whose behalf the free world supposedly has been fighting.

While refining the sanctions approach to help spare the Burmese, international pressure must not be eased against the junta. But for international pressure, the junta would not have unveiled a timetable for a supposed transition to democracy. Earlier, it was due to mounting external pressure that it moved Suu Kyi from prison to house detention in September 2003 and then freed seven of the NLD’s most senior leaders. More recently, such pressure also explains why the junta facilitated UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s three visits to Burma in six months, permitting him to meet with Suu Kyi, and also allowed Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a special rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Council, to come to Rangoon and investigate the September 2007 violence, including the number of casualties and detentions.

Yet, if there is to be progress on the “roadmap to democracy,” the military cannot be excluded from engagement. As visiting Singapore Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said in Washington in April 9, 2008: “On Myanmar, I told the President (Bush) that while the army is the problem, the army has to be part of the solution. Without the army playing a part in solving problems in Myanmar, there will be no solution.”[37]

Building democracy in Burma is vital not only to end repression and to empower the masses, but also to facilitate ethnic conciliation and integration in a much divided society that has been at war with itself since its 1948 independence. There is, therefore, a need to build greater unity and coordination among the major democracies on a pragmatic Burma strategy. A good idea would to build a concert of democracies working together on Burma, serving as a bridge between the U.S., European and Asian positions and fashioning greater coordination in policy actions.

Without a structured and more progressive international approach, Burma will stay on the present deplorable path, with the military continuing to call the shots. As one analyst has put it, “economic sanctions on Myanmar may feel right, but they have helped produce the wrong results. Encouraging Western investment, trade and tourism may feel wrong, but maybe — just maybe — could produce better results. That might be politically incorrect, but at least it wouldn’t be politically futile.”[38] In an era of a supposed global village, why deny the citizens of Burma the right to enjoy the benefits of globalization and free trade? A more dysfunctional Burma is not in the interest of anyone.

The priority should be to carve out more international space in Burma, rather than shut whatever space that might be left there. International pressure without constructive engagement and civil-society development will not bring enduring results. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Burma, the same international standard applicable to autocratic, no-less-ruthless regimes in neighboring states must apply to Burma — engage, don’t isolate.

[*] The author is Professor of Strategic Studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

[1] After the failed 1993-1996 National Convention to draft a new Constitution, the junta did nothing until international pressure intensified during 2003-04. It then issued invitations to a National Convention starting in May 2004 to take up the drafting of the Constitution where the earlier convention had left off. But the democratic opposition did not participate in that convention.

[2] President Bush’s statement of May 1, 2008, stated: “Today, I’ve issued a new executive order that instructs the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of Burmese state-owned companies that are major sources of funds that prop up the junta.”

[3] Ivo J. H. Bozon, Warren J. Campbell, and Mats Lindstrand, “Global Trends in Energy,” The McKinsey Quarterly, Number 1 (2007), p. 48.

[4] International Monetary Fund, 2006.

[5] See, for example, Alan Sipress, “Asia Keeps Burmese Industry Humming: Trade, Both Legal and Illegal, Blunts Effect of U.S. Economic Sanctions,” Washington Post, January 7, 2005, p. A11.

[6] Sean Turnell, “The Rape of Burma: Where Did the Wealth Go,” Japan Times, May 2, 2008.

[7] On January 12, 2007, China and Russia torpedoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution tabled by the United States and Britain that called on the Burmese regime to halt military attacks against ethnic minorities, release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and promote a democratic transition.

[8] The actual holding in the two blocks is: Daewoo International (60 percent), ONGC Videsh (20 percent), GAIL (10 percent) and Korea Gas Corporation (10 percent). This Indo-Korean consortium is currently engaged in a new exploration drilling program in Block A3.

[9] Yolanda Fong-Sam, “The Mineral Industry of Burma,” in 2005 Minerals Yearbook (Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, 2006).

[10] International Energy, at:

[11] John W. Garver, “Development of China’s Overland Transportation Links with Central, South-West and South Asia,” China Quarterly, No. 185 (March 2006), pages 1-22.

[12] Mohan Malik, “China’s Peaceful Ruse: Beijing Tightens Its Noose Round India’s Neck,” Force, December 10, 2005.

[13] Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London: Zed Books, 1999).

[14] Suu Kyi accompanied her mother, Ma Khin Kyi, to India in 1960 when she was appointed Burma’s ambassador there. Suu Kyi studied at a high school in New Delhi and then at the undergraduate Lady Shri Ram College, also in New Delhi. Then, in the mid-1980s, Suu Kyi and her British husband, Michael Aris, were fellows at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies at Simla.

[15] In September 1988, following Ne Win’s resignation, the military’s State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) formally took power. SLORC was officially rechristened the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in November 1997.

[16] The 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act prohibits the importation into the United States of any article that is a product of Burma until the president determines and certifies to Congress that Burma has taken certain democratic and counternarcotics actions. The Act directs the secretary of the treasury to direct any U.S. financial institution holding funds of the Burmese regime or the assets of individuals who hold senior positions in the regime to freeze them. It also requires that the executive seek to persuade international financial institutions to oppose any extension of a loan or financial or technical assistance to Burma until the requirements of the Act have been met. Burma’s neighbors are to be persuaded to “restrict financial resources” to Burma and Burmese companies. And, finally, the Act authorizes the president to assist Burmese democracy activists.

[17] The May 20, 1997, executive order issued by President Bill Clinton banned most new U.S. investment in the “economic development of resources in Burma.” Steven Erlanger, “Clinton Approves New U.S. Sanctions against Burmese,” New York Times, April 22, 1997.

[18] United States Information Service (USIS) Washington File, “USITC Report on Unilateral U.S. Trade Sanctions,” September 11, 1998.

[19] See, for example, Leon T. Hadar, U.S. Sanctions Against Burma: A Failure on All Fronts, Trade Policy Analysis Paper No. 1 (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1998). It argued: “U.S. policy toward Burma is an irresponsible moral posturing. Supporters of sanctions want to feel good that they are doing something to improve political and economic conditions in Burma by forcing someone else–American businesses, the ASEAN nations, and the Burmese people–to bear the costs. The result will be reduced access of the Burmese people to American products, people, and ideas; worsening economic conditions; and potential political and regional instability. It is indeed ironic that some members of America’s cosmopolitan knowledge class, who are the main beneficiaries of the process of economic globalization, are supporting policies that run contrary to free trade and open markets and deny the Burmese people the ability to enjoy the fruits of the global economy.”

[20] To be sure, the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act flowed from years of mounting congressional pressure on the executive branch to take a tougher approach toward that country. After the junta refused to honor the results of the 1990 polls, the U.S. Congress passed the Customs and Trade Act enabling the president to impose sanctions on Burma — an authority then-President George H.W. Bush declined to exercise. In 1993, the U.S. Senate, seeking to force the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the president to work for a UN embargo against Burma. In 1995, Sen. Mitch McConnell introduced the Free Burma Act. Another similar legislation, with a name akin to the subsequent 2003 law, the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, was introduced in 1996 by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

[21] Department of State, Report on U.S. Trade Sanctions Against Burma, Congressionally mandated report submitted to Congress on April 28, 2004.

[22] Suu Kyi was in Rangoon to take care of her stroke-stricken mother when Burma was battered by the cataclysmic events of August 1998.By August 26, 1998, she had plunged herself into politics, addressing her first public meeting outside the Shwedagon Pagoda that called for a democratically elected government. And less than a month later, she formed her National League for Democracy (NLD) party on September 24, 1998.

[23]The Failed States Index 2006 of The Fund for Peace is available at:

It is also available at:

[24] Susan E. Rice and Stewart Patrick, Index of State Weakness in the Developing World (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008).

[25]World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders at:

[26]Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2007, available at:

[27] Freedom House, Freedom in the World (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2006).

[28] World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders at:

[29] Even the 1988 protests were triggered by an economic decision of the government — the 1987 action devaluing the currency that wiped out many people’s savings. Like in 2007, the 1988 demonstrations began among students before gradually spreading to monks and the public, culminating in the national uprising on August 8, 1988, when hundreds of thousands of people marched to demand a change of government. At least 3,000 people were believed killed when troops opened fire on protesters on that day.

[30] In Jimmy Carter’s words, “A counterproductive Washington policy in recent years has been to boycott and punish political factions or governments that refuse to accept United States mandates.” Jimmy Carter, “Pariah Diplomacy,” New York Times, April 28, 2008.

[31] Hadar, U.S. Sanctions Against Burma.

[32] After his investigations in Burma into the September 2007 violence, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a special rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Council, released a report in Geneva which said that at least 31 people were killed in the protests in Rangoon — twice the death toll the regime had reported — and that 500 to 1,000 people were still being detained for involvement in the protests. The report also said that 74 people were listed as missing in the aftermath of the clashes. In addition, it reported that 1,150 political prisoners held before the September 2007 protests had not been released.

[33] The Tibetan government-in-exile said April 29, 2008, that at least 203 people, most of them Tibetans, had thus far died in the Chinese crackdowns in Tibet. But China’s official death toll — 22 — is almost 10 times lower.

[34] Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi (eds.), Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson (New Delhi: Vikas, 1979).

[35] Interview published on website, New Mandala, at:

[36] Department of State, Report on U.S. Trade Sanctions Against Burma, Congressionally mandated report submitted to Congress on April 28, 2004.

[37] AFP, April 9, 2008.

[38] Stanley A. Weiss, “Burma: Are Sanctions the Answer?” International Herald Tribune, February 8, 2008

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