In the two decades since a military junta overturned the democratic opposition’s victory in Burma’s 1990 elections and began the systematic repression, impoverishment and isolation of its fifty million people, the international community has engaged in a debilitating debate about whether it is better to engage or sanction the ruling generals.1 Advocates of engagement have argued that sanctions have failed to change the junta’s behavior and have left an opening for China to dominate that resource-rich country. Advocates of sanctions have argued that engagement, notably by Burma’s neighbors, has made the junta’s generals obscenely wealthy while leaving Burma’s ethnic minorities, democratic opposition and average citizens vulnerable to even greater political repression, military crackdowns and poverty.
The result has been stalemate and an almost total lack of effective policy. The only beneficiary of this debate has been the junta, which has used the divisions in the international community to undermine sanctions policy and maintain a free hand at home. Meanwhile, the people of Burma have not only continued to suffer; their suffering has arguably gotten worse with time. They endured a particularly brutal crackdown in the wake of the August 2007 “Saffron Revolution”, named for the color of the robes worn by Buddhist monks who led peaceful protests across the country until being beaten, arrested or driven into hiding. And they experienced the regime’s callous indifference to the massive disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis, which left more than 100,000 dead in May 2008.
In the face of this human tragedy and policy impasse Congress passed bipartisan legislation in July 2008 (named after the late Congressman Tom Lantos) to move U.S. policy beyond the sanctions-versus-engagement debate. It established a special coordinator empowered to build a comprehensive toolkit to test the prospect for change in Burma. (Full disclosure: I was nominated to fill that position.2) The legislation’s mandate included five elements: tightening targeted sanctions against the regime; strengthening policy coordination with Burma’s neighbors; working with Burma’s National League for Democracy and ethnic groups; exploring opportunities for expanding humanitarian assistance without undermining human rights concerns; and engaging in direct talks with the government of Burma itself.
After a formal review of Burma policy, the Obama Administration reached the same conclusion on the need for a comprehensive approach to the problem. Explaining the conclusions of the review to Congress on September 30, 2008, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell acknowledged that neither sanctions nor engagement independently has succeeded, and that the Administration would begin a “long, slow and step-by-step process” of dialogue with the junta to supplement, not replace, the sanctions regime. Importantly, he clearly established that the United States reserved the option to increase sanctions as necessary. In early November of last year, Campbell traveled to the new Burmese capital of Naypyidaw for meetings with senior ministers of the junta, and then to Rangoon for a session with Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition representatives. It was the highest-level U.S. government delegation to the country since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit in 1995.
The Obama Administration’s approach has won praise from all sides of the fractious Burma debate, ranging from the government of Singapore and Refugees International (which advocate engagement and major increases in humanitarian assistance) to the U.S. Campaign for Burma and the National League for Democracy (which are more suspicious of the regime). In part, this broad support reflects the potential effectiveness of the comprehensive toolkit now being deployed by the Administration, but it also reflects the long-standing frustration of Burma hands over the past two decades. Nevertheless, the current chorus of praise points to a familiar problem for the Administration: The only way to satisfy everyone is to produce positive change in Burma. Unfortunately, the junta has thus far demonstrated no intention of changing its behavior and time is not on the side of a patient engagement strategy.
This inconvenient fact may become evident sooner than the Administration would like. That is why it should be keenly attentive to both the promises and the perils of negotiating with Burma’s generals, and to the likelihood that it will need to adjust to failure. In short, it needs a Plan B.
The Promise of Engagement
While the United States has rightly refused to recognize the junta’s rejection of the democratic opposition’s electoral victory in 1990, the reality is that the junta will not wind the clock back two decades and agree to regime change. In 2008, while much of the country was underwater in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the junta orchestrated a sham referendum in which it claimed that over 90 percent voted in favor of a new constitution that would guide elections in 2010. Under the new constitution, the military is guaranteed a dominant position in the parliament, the military-controlled National Security Council can declare martial law at any time, and amendments to the constitution require a three-fourths majority in parliament, a body which will already have a guaranteed majority for the army.
As for the election itself, there is no election law or election commission, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from participating, ethnic minorities like the Kachin who entered into ceasefire agreements are barred from forming political parties, and there are no provisions for international monitoring. As fraudulent as such an election would be, however, it has everything necessary for Burma’s autocratic and risk-averse neighbors to claim it as an “important” step in the right direction. Divisions will open up between advocates of engagement and sanctions, and the people of Burma will continue to suffer.
Because the United States has consistently supported the democratic opposition in Burma (something that cannot be said of the United Nations or Burma’s neighbors), it is uniquely positioned to use engagement with the regime to establish benchmarks that would render the 2010 election something more than a sham, even if far from an example of Jeffersonian democracy in action. If the Obama Administration’s engagement strategy secures the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates in prison (more than 2,000 are behind bars, many arrested in the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution); if it establishes international monitoring arrangements; if it convinces Burma to lower the bar for constitutional amendments and place some limits on the National Security Council’s powers; then the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ethnic minorities would likely participate in the election process, and Aung San Suu Kyi would likely endorse sanctions relief and greater aid for Burma. This scenario would be a tall order for any diplomat, but it is not entirely out of reach if the Administration makes a full court press.
If engagement does turn the 2010 election from a sham propaganda exercise into the beginning of more meaningful reconciliation within Burma, then deeper dialogue with Burma could then also help to address other security challenges facing the region. Burma has established a close military relationship with North Korea, and there are credible reports that the junta has explored ballistic missile and possibly nuclear cooperation with Pyongyang. (If that seems foolish and self-defeating for a country with such a modest scientific-technical infrastructure, recall that the junta has a penchant for the absurd: Burma’s top general Than Shwe uprooted the nation’s capital virtually overnight and moved it from Rangoon to remote Naypyidaw in 2005, based on paranoid fear of invasion and the recommenda
tions of a soothsayer). The Administration has claimed that Burma’s July 2009 decision to turn away the North Korean ship Kamnang, which was being tracked by the U.S. Navy on suspicion that it was carrying weapons in violation of UN Security Council sanctions, is evidence that direct engagement of Burma pays security dividends. A better case can be made that the Kamnang incident proves that sanctions work: Had Burma received the North Korean shipment, the junta would have been guilty of violating international sanctions and therefore subject to serious consequences. Still, isolating Burma from North Korea is a goal that can be reinforced through effective dialogue with the junta.
There is also merit in preventing Burma from falling deeper into China’s strategic orbit, though this threat is often overstated by advocates of engagement. Strategic mistrust of the Chinese runs deep in Burma’s history, and it would be an enormous mistake for the United States to legitimize Beijing’s amoral mercantilist approach to autocratic regimes by taking a page from the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s playbook. Opinion polling and the demonstration effect of democratization in states like Indonesia suggest that the trend in Asia is toward a universal definition of human rights and democracy, not toward some purported Asian cultural affection for authoritarianism. If engagement can yield measurable progress on democratic and human rights concerns while simultaneously opening new areas of cooperation with Burma on development and security, then both the balance of power and the balance of ideas in Asia will benefit.
The Perils of Engagement
The Obama Administration is right to test engagement with Burma, but it must be mindful of the numerous perils of letting engagement alone define its new strategy. The most immediate risk has already materialized: Even as the Administration prepared its policy review and sent a delegation toBurma, the junta stepped up its repression and use of violence.
First military crackdown in June 2009 drove 5,000 ethnic Karens across the border into Thailand, the largest such forced exodus in a decade. In August, the junta sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to an additional 18 months of house arrest (conveniently keeping her under its heel throughout the 2010 “election” year). That month the junta also launched its offensive against the Kokang minority. And in advance of the State Department delegation’s visit in November, the junta arrested an additional fifty students, journalists and political activists. Today the junta is massing forces near the Bangladeshi border, and ethnic minorities there and elsewhere expect further military operations against them before the 2010 election. The Administration appears to worry that reacting to near-term repression by the junta will jeopardize the longer-term prospects for engagement; it rather reminds one of the Administration’s attitude toward Iran. As in the Iranian case, however, the opposite is true: By not setting clear expectations for regime behavior from the start, the Administration risks letting the engagement process become a cover for repression that will eventually make engagement unsustainable.
The clock is also an enemy. There is virtue to patience in diplomacy, and change in Burma will inevitably require a careful, deliberate approach. But the 2010 election is happening soon, and the wrong outcome will further entrench the junta and set back the prospects for change. Having chosen not to reject the junta’s proposal for the election, the Administration must now increase pressure if it expects the regime to agree to even a modicum of meaningful participation by the democratic opposition and ethnic minorities. The junta is in communication with Aung San Suu Kyi, who has demanded that she be allowed a free hand to coordinate with the mostly imprisoned leadership of the NLD. That is about where things are stuck right now, with very little time before the junta announces an election date and subsequently its own party’s predictable and unverifiable landslide victory.
There is also peril in the region’s comfort and complacency about Washington’s new approach. Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein announced to his colleagues in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in October that the United States has “softened its approach”, and ASEAN seems to agree. Shortly after the completion of the Burma Policy review, the United Nation’s sponsored a conference on Burma at which former World Bank economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz announced the “time is ripe for development in Burma” and urged that economic development be decoupled from political events. Singapore, Thailand, India and other close U.S. partners have significant commercial stakes in Burma and have turned off the pressure on the regime as they wait for U.S. policy to soften further. The Obama Administration’s initial apathetic tone on international human rights and democracy issues continues to encourage self-interested parties around the world to expect much from engagement and little from threats of pressure. It will be difficult to mobilize international pressure on the regime if that impression deepens.
The Need for Greater Clarity
Assistant Secretary Campbell’s announcement of the Burma policy review was measured, balanced and appropriate. He is a respected and experienced Asia expert with a sober view of the problem. However, if the Obama Administration is serious about its readiness to increase sanctions and pressure on the junta, it must be certain that the junta and Burma’s wavering neighbors know that now. Several concrete steps would help send that message.
First, as already suggested, the Administration should appoint the Burma envoy mandated by the Lantos Act as soon as possible. At a minimum, that person should focus on coordination of sanctions policy within the U.S. government and with other like-minded states. The envoy should focus not only on better enforcement of current sanctions but also on discussions of new targeted sanctions against the junta’s elite. There is no reason the Administration cannot have sanctions in place while working in parallel with a negotiator—as it has in the case of North Korea, where Ambassador Phillip Goldberg has worked on implementing sanctions while Ambassador Stephen Bosworth has reached out to the regime.
The Administration should also ensure that it is not undercutting the democratic opposition and ethnic minorities within Burma. Humanitarian assistance should be expanded to the people of Burma, but not if the junta insists that the aid be distributed through “legitimate state agencies”—a ploy used to isolate and marginalize nascent civil society groups connected with the ethnic minorities and the NLD. These groups actually provided the real internal humanitarian assistance after Cyclone Nargis, while the generals were using the nation’s huge military assets to conduct a sham referendum. In addition to any increases in humanitarian assistance, it will be critical to provide technical assistance to the non-government parties within Burma to prepare them for elections.
The State Department spokesman cautioned in early January that the Administration has “not seen any meaningful steps by the regime to indicate it is putting in place measures that would lead to credible elections” in 2010. He urged that the regime take concrete steps to release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and begin an inclusive and comprehensive process of dialogue. That was the right message, but messages are just words. To translate words into outcomes, we need to be clearly willing to back them up with pressure. Without a Plan B that does so, we will risk not only the devaluation of our voice but the diminution of America’s moral and political standing throughout the region.
1The regime renamed itself “Myanmar” in 1989. The United States government has refused to legitimize the junta by using that name. Neighboring states in Asia now use the name, as does the United Nations. The European Union and many scholars use “Burma/Myanmar.” ?2My nomination was not voted upon before the Bush Administration came to an end. The Obama Administration has thus far left the position unfilled.