The right path on Burma: Constructive engagement

Open new doors

Brahma Chellaney

DNA newspaper, August 21, 2009 

Burma, or Myanmar as its military junta calls it, is a country of critical importance to next-door India. The West can afford to pursue a punitive approach towards a Burma located far away because it has little at stake there.

That explains why the West applies one principle to the world’s largest autocracy, China — that engagement is the best way to bring about political change — but an opposite principle centred on sanctions to an impoverished Burma. In doing so, it unfortunately exposes democracy promotion as a geopolitical tool usually wielded against the weak and the marginalised.

Going after the small kids on the global block but courting the most-powerful autocrats is hardly the way to build international norms. India simply cannot afford to shut itself out of Burma, or else — with an increasingly bellicose China to the north, a China-allied Pakistan on the west, a Chinese-influenced Burma to the east and growing Chinese naval interest in the Indian Ocean — it will get fully encircled.

In that light, India must be pleased with the Obama administration’s tentative process of re-engagement with Burma, a strategically located country that US policy has increasingly pushed into China’s lap through an uncompromisingly penal approach since the mid-1990s.

The Obama team, reviewing US policy, has been exploring the prospect of gradual re-engagement with Burma, with American diplomats holding two separate meetings with the Burmese foreign minister.

A big step towards re-engagement came last weekend when senator James Webb visited Rangoon and Naypyidaw, the new Burmese capital. Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, secured the release of an American military veteran who was recently convicted and sentenced to seven years of hard labour for illegally entering Burma and then swimming 3km across a lake to sneak into opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s heavily guarded home.

Driven by their legendary pioneering spirit, Americans do dangerous things and then create international crises over their arrests: Two female journalists strayed into North Korea; three students lost their way into Iran; and an ex-military man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder swam a lake and spent two days at Suu Kyi’s home to supposedly warn her that he had had a vision in which she was killed by terrorists.

Their adventures, significantly, were directed at the three countries that face the most-severe US sanctions. But having over-employed the sanctions tool, Washington has dissipated its leverage against Burma, North Korea and Iran and run out of viable options.

Little surprise the new US administration has sought to open lines of communication with these countries. The humanitarian imperative to help free jailed Americans has provided the impetus to this political endeavour. The individuals’ dangerous exploits thus were a blessing in disguise for the US diplomacy, presenting an opportunity to try and open the door to engagement and providing the humanitarian shield to deflect attacks by those opposed to compromise.

Just this month, the US was able to reopen lines of communication with North Korea and Burma, with Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang winning the release of the two women and Webb’s lower-profile mission actually yielding more tangible political results. A formal US opening to Iran, however, would have to await the outcome of the current intense power struggle there.

Webb held face-to-face discussions with the junta’s top leader, general Than Shwe. He also was allowed to meet Suu Kyi, just weeks after the UN secretary-general had been denied such a meeting. In fact, after Suu Kyi was convicted of violating the terms of her house detention by sheltering the American intruder, the junta instantly commuted her sentence to allow her to return to her villa and not spend time in a jail.

If Suu Kyi were to reverse her decision to boycott next year’s national elections, the generals might even be willing to lift her house detention. In any case, Suu Kyi is free to leave the country, but on a one-way ticket.

Just the way Washington today is reassessing its hardline towards Burma, India was compelled to shift course after a decade of foreign-policy activism from the late 1980s — but not before paying dearly. In the period New Delhi broke off all contact with the junta and became a hub of Burmese dissident activity, China strategically penetrated Burma, opening a new flank against India. That period’s sobering lessons have helped instill greater geopolitical realism in Indian policy.

While still seeking political reconciliation and democratic transition in Burma, New Delhi now espouses constructive engagement with the junta. Years of sanctions have left Burma bereft of an entrepreneurial class but saddled with the military as the only functioning institution.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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