Reengage Burma

U.S. should engage Burma


The Japan Times August 29, 2009

Driven by their legendary pioneering spirit, Americans have a penchant to do dangerous things and then create an international crisis if they get arrested. Just consider the events of recent months: Two female journalists stray into North Korea; three students trekking in Iraq lose their way into Iran; and a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder enters Burma illegally and then swims three kilometers across a lake to sneak into opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s heavily guarded home. He spends two days at Suu Kyi’s home — even though she is supposed to be under house arrest — to warn her that he had had a vision in which she was killed by terrorists.

What is more bizarre is that such adventures were directed at the three countries that currently face the most-severe U.S. sanctions. These nations thus had no reason to be amused by the exploits, let alone to pardon the individuals.

In fact, by rendering its sanctions instrument blunt through overuse, Washington has dissipated its leverage against Burma, North Korea and Iran and run out of viable options. The new U.S. administration, therefore, has wisely sought to open lines of communication with these countries and review policy options.

The humanitarian imperative to help free jailed Americans provided the impetus to this political undertaking. The individuals’ dangerous exploits thus came as a blessing in disguise for U.S. diplomacy, presenting an opportunity to try and open the door to engagement while providing the humanitarian shield to deflect attacks by hard-line critics at home.

Just this month, even as the White House kept up the pretence that these were “private, humanitarian missions unlinked to U.S. policies,” the United States was able to reopen lines of communication with North Korea and Burma, with ex-President Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang winning the release of the two women and Senator James Webb’s lower-profile mission to Rangoon and Naypyidaw, the new Burmese capital, actually yielding more tangible political results. Webb also secured the release of the ex-military man who was recently convicted and sentenced to seven years in hard labor.

A formal U.S. opening to Iran, however, would have to await the outcome of the current intense struggle for supremacy there among those empowered by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Let’s be clear: U.S. policy increasingly has pushed Burma into China’s strategic lap through an uncompromisingly penal approach since the mid-1990s — to the extent that the Bush administration began turning to Beijing as a channel of communication with the junta, even though the U.S. has maintained non-ambassadorial diplomatic relations with Burma, unlike with Iran and North Korea. A policy that has the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s, clearly, demands a reappraisal.

The weight of the U.S.-led sanctions has fallen squarely on the ordinary Burmese, while the military remains largely unaffected. The sanctions-only approach indeed has made it less likely that the seeds of democracy will sprout in a stunted economy.

The U.S. also cannot forget that democratization of an autocratic state is a challenge that extends beyond Burma. Democracy promotion thus should not become a geopolitical tool wielded only against the weak and the marginalized.

Can one principle be applied to the world’s largest autocracy, China — that engagement is the way to bring about political change — but an opposite principle centered on sanctions remain in force against impoverished Burma? Going after the small kids on the global bloc but courting the most-powerful autocrats is hardly the way to build international norms.

Against this background, the Obama administration is doing the right thing by exploring the prospect of a gradual U.S. reengagement with Burma, with American diplomats holding two separate meetings with the Burmese foreign minister in recent months. Webb’s Burma mission was a big boost in that direction.

Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, held separate face-to-face discussions with the junta’s top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, and Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein. He also was allowed to meet Suu Kyi, just weeks after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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 remains free to leave the country, but on a one-way ticket.

The elections are unlikely to be free and fair. But make no mistake: By agreeing to hold the polls, the military is implicitly creating a feeling of empowerment among the people. However unintended, the message citizens will draw is that the next government’s legitimacy depends on them. Which other entrenched autocracy in the world is offering to empower its citizens to vote on a new government?

The electoral process creates space for the Burmese democracy movement. The regime will have to allow political parties to campaign and take their message to the people. That, in turn, will allow the parties to galvanize support for democratic transition. Getting a foot in is necessary before the door to political change can be forced open.

That is why many parties representing the large ethnic minorities have decided to participate in the elections, even though the polls will be fought on the skewed terms set by the military. If Suu Kyi stays out, she and the aging leadership of her party, the National League for Democracy, will miss an important opportunity for the democracy movement to assert itself under the military’s own rules.

Just the way Washington today is reassessing its hard line toward 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.

After all, years of sanctions have left Burma bereft of an entrepreneurial class but saddled with the military as the only functioning institution. That means a “color revolution” is unlikely and that democratic transition will be a painfully incremental process.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

The Japan Times: Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009

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