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Great Debate Update: Is the U.S. Already Bungling Burma?

Reacting to the removal of U.S. sanctions on Burma last Wednesday, two experts on Asia policy say we’re rushing rapprochement. In the Washington Post, Michael Green and Daniel Twining write that the administration rushed this decision through the National Security Council to time a new policy with Clinton’s visit to the region this week:

By publicly splitting with Burma’s democratic opposition on such an important issue, the administration will find that Aung San Suu Kyi no longer provides political cover for U.S. policies. The White House will find itself held more accountable for the Burmese military’s continued violence against ethnic minorities, as well as any nuclear ties with North Korea and the Burmese people’s dashed expectations for lasting political change.

The Great Debate on U.S. foreign policy in Asia is gaining steam, and Burma is drawing more attention than many expected. For years the human rights community owned our Burma policy; as investment diminished and sanctions tightened, the human rights lobby faced less and less opposition.

But Burma policy isn’t just about human rights. It’s also about the balance of power in Asia and the development of ASEAN. Now that significant Japanese, Korean, Indian and Thai investment is pouring into the country, it’s a much more important concern for U.S. business as well.

U.S. policy toward Burma can’t neglect the issues of democratization and human rights — if only because the stability of the country depends in part on finding some kind of acceptable solution to the ethnic conflicts that rage in much of the country. But as with Vietnam (with which the U.S. maintains good relations despite its undemocratic and sometimes oppressive character), human rights cannot and will not be the only thing Washington considers in moving the relationship forward.

One thing the human rights community is very good at is eloquent squeals of pain when its expectations are disappointed. Expect laments to be intoned and hands to be wrung, but one of the implications of the new American approach to Asia is that foreign democracy leaders, however charismatic and sincere, cannot be the only voices we heed in making regional policy. Via Meadia will continue to watch this long game in Burma.

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  • prairie wind

    Interesting. I have wondered why news-people started saying “Myanmar, also known as Burma” instead of “Burma, also known as Myanmar.” Now I see.

  • Mark simon

    These observations are not with the situation I encountered in my last two visits to Burma. The people are hungry for economic growth, and the Obama policy of opening is the correct one. The Chinese, Europeans, and Thai’s are not holding back. We gain influence with presence not absence. The idea we can sit back and dictate is a dead one.

    As for the ethnic minorities. Suu Kyi is not their champion,

  • RebeccaH

    We can do more for human rights by using our economic advantages to pressure those regimes in which “human rights” are notably absent, than we can ever do by appealing to their “sensibilities”.

  • Hanoi Paris Hilton

    “Myanmar” is –and always has been– the name for “Burma” in Burmese (except in some dialects, e.g., Rakhine, where the pronunciation is closer to “Mrammar”). The Brits just made a poor approximation of a difficult-to-hear word. For better or for worse, the political dimension of “Myanmar” has foreclosed the simple linguistics. Not at all a case of, say, “Cambodia” or “Cambodge” being ideologically recast by the Khmer Rouge as “Kampuchea”. On the other hand, multi-lingual, multi-cultural “Bharat” (the name of that country in the dominant language, Hindi) opted –post-colonially–for political reasons to remain with “India”.

  • Craig

    The US is the only country still to maintain a ban on Burmese exports (mostly garments, to Ms Suu Kyi’s’ distress because she is pleading for support for labor-intensive industries). Likewise the US is still the only country blocking World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank funding for the benefit of the people. Sanctions against the people are not ‘smart’. They are really very dumb.

  • chili

    H-P-H – The British did NOT mispronounce the name Myanmar – they did not even bother with it. This land is traditionally linked to India and was known to Indians as Brahmadesh – the Land of Brahma. Desh as in Bangla Desh – the Land of Bengal, as in Madhya Desh – Middle Earth.
    As you would remember, it is to the east of that mighty river the BrahmaPutra – the Son of Brahma, and the association follows.
    However the British learned their Hindustani from the Bengalis – around Calcutta – whose sound shifts caused the pronunciation BRHMO which the British learnt as Berrma and spelt Burma.
    The British did not bother with this land until instability in greater Assam caused them to to go off and pacify it for the good of their Indian empire. It never has been really important in the affairs of its neighbors – just a MarchLand.
    Now the US is getting involved in a 21st Century version of the Great Game – perilous!

  • Rev. Stephen E. Fletcher

    I like what Mark simon says: “The people are hungry for economic growth and the Obama policy of opening is the correct one.” (See Response 2 above.) It will give American diplomacy more clout in its advocacy of democracy in Myanmar’s policies with its many minority peoples — Shan, Toungthu, Lahu, Wa, Chin, Kachin, not to mention Karen (Pwo & Sgaw). The Karens, especially along the panhandle adjacent to Thailand, have had their homes and villages in Burma burned by government troops and who have fled into Thailand for refuge. Will Aung San Suu Kyi be able to negotiate an apology from the military to the Karens to say nothing of a pledge of security or an invitation to return to their homeland?

  • Rev. Stephen E. Fletcher

    I really like what chili says (see response 6 above). It is the clearest I have heard for the origin of “Burma,” i.e., from Hindustani “Brahmadesh — land of Brahma” with a Bengali accent, i.e., “BRHMO” which the British anglicized as Burma.
    With independence it is the more understandable that the largely Buddhist majority of the population would not want their country named after a Hindu god. And perhaps it is understandable that minority ethnc people prefer the British name as a reminder of an old order that seemed more reliable. So, is it Myanmar a.k.a. Burma or the other way around? I guess that depends upon with whom you are talking about Aung San Suu Kyi’s country.

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