It is said that there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than ninety-nine who never go astray. Heaven must be celebrating the events in the country formerly known as Burma, which could one day become the country formerly known as Myanmar. As the New York Times reports:
The thawing, while in its early stages, follows a political transition in Myanmar after deeply flawed elections last year that nonetheless appears to have raised the possibility that the new government will ease its restrictions on basic freedoms and cooperate with the repressed opposition movement led by the Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.The new president, U Thein Sein, a former general who was part of the military junta that ruled the country for two decades, has in six months in office signaled a sharp break from the highly centralized and erratic policies of the past. Mr. Thein Sein’s government is now rewriting laws on taxes and property ownership, loosening restrictions on the media and even discussing the release of political prisoners.The apparent shift offers the United States the chance to improve ties with a resource-rich Southeast Asian nation that after many years of semi-isolation counts neighboring China as its main ally. Last week, Myanmar’s new leadership unexpectedly halted work on a $3.6 billion dam strongly backed by China, prompting angry criticism from the Chinese government and the state-owned Chinese company that was building it. […]Obama administration officials are now debating additional steps to support the nascent changes and encourage more, including the creation of a truly democratic political system and an end to violence against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. The outreach is being closely coordinated with Congress, with other countries, including members of the European Union, and with Myanmar’s opposition.
Via Meadia welcomes these changes, and is supportive of U.S. efforts to reach out and support the nascent changes in the Burmese government. Though these are only tentative first steps, the country has long needed dramatic reform, and this news at least shows momentum in the right direction.Yet the Times does its readers a disservice by focusing only on the human rights aspect of the reforms at the expense of all other sides of the story. While the expansion of freedom in the authoritarian state will have a profound impact on many who live there, there is much more at work here. In particular, the geopolitical situation deserves special attention — China has long been an important ally, but over the past decades Myanmar has become increasingly dependent on its enormous Eastern neighbor. The recent liberalization in Myanmar suggests an attempt to regain control over its own future by broadening its circle of friends internationally, allowing it to function as an independent actor rather than a Chinese client state. By ignoring the geopolitical side of the news, the Times has written the story as a generic human rights morality play — which may be what its core readership is looking for, but which fails to tell readers what is really going on. We should expect more from our paper of record.The changes are certainly good for the U.S., yet the same geopolitical concepts driving Burma’s new policy also suggest limits to the amount of liberalization the country will tolerate. While Burma may be eager to reduce its dependence on China, it hasn’t made this switch simply to have another great power tell it what to do. American policymakers will have to tread carefully — if we are too demanding we are liable to lose the little progress that has been made, but the country genuinely needs reform, and we need to do what we can to ensure that it happens. Giving Myanamar’s government more political options might make sense even if the human rights situation changes only a little. Striking the right balance will be a challenge for America going forward — and it doesn’t get any easier if the human rights lobby doesn’t ground its advocacy in a sophisticated understanding of the geopolitical background.Reading this as a white hats, black hats morality tale in human rights will only lead to confusion and poor policy. Via Meadia hopes the American policy makers working this issue have access to better sources than the Times.