By Judd Gregg | April 1, 2009
SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Clinton recently announced that the administration will undertake a Burma policy review.
Over the years, Congress and various administrations have imposed economic sanctions and aid restrictions against the State Peace and Development Council, as the misfit military junta in Burma calls itself. Some question whether US actions have had any result in lessening the junta’s death grip over that country.
Clinton should seek to answer that question by soliciting the opinions of those who matter most: the people of Burma and their elected representatives from the National League for Democracy. In 1990, the League won parliamentary elections that were ignored by the junta, and its key leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, were jailed – or worse. Despite the military junta’s campaign of brutality, democrats in Burma have refused to give up.
Clinton will hear predictable answers from diplomats who will insist that a policy shift toward greater economic engagement with the SPDC is in order, regardless of the fact that Transparency International lists Burma as the second-most corrupt country in the world.
She will hear some aid workers insist that America causes the Burmese people’s suffering through its sanctions, never mind the SPDC’s well-documented record of economic mismanagement, failed governance, and gross human-rights abuses.
And the secretary will hear a repeated refrain in foreign capitals that “China and India won’t” or “the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can’t” when it comes to holding the junta accountable for its contemptible misrule, at a time when President Obama has much of the world eager to reinvigorate diplomacy with America.
However, the voice Clinton must listen hardest to is the one she is likely to hear least. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Rangoon. While it may be expedient for some diplomats and aid workers to marginalize the National League for Democracy, Clinton must recognize that no political reconciliation in Burma is possible without that party’s full participation along with ethnic representatives who remain imprisoned.
Burma is more than just a human-rights problem. Illicit drugs, diseases, and refugees migrate to neighboring countries, creating major social – and financial – burdens on local and national governments. Geostrategic interests, including natural resources and access to deep water ports for a growing Chinese navy, should be of increasing concern to the region, as well as the United States and Europe.
During the review, the administration should stay the course on current US policy toward Burma. Assistance provided in the wake of Cyclone Nargis should be monitored closely to ensure that none is siphoned off by the regime, and ongoing programs that seek to address the most basic of needs to the people of Burma – inside and along the border with Thailand – should continue at increased funding levels to address currency and commodity price fluctuations. Finally, no one should believe that elections scheduled for next year will be transformational so long as Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, and ethnic nationalities remain shackled, and barred from political participation by the junta’s Draconian constitution. The call for the immediate and unconditional release of Suu Kyi and all prisoners of conscience must continue.
America has stood by Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy for over two decades. Any policy change that calls for a deviation from this support must be weighed carefully. It is far from certain that engagement with the military junta will produce any significant reward (tigers don’t change their stripes), and the United States is not in a position to effectively counter China’s growing presence in Burma, whether through high-risk investments or security assistance. The best antidote to a growing Chinese footprint is transparent and accountable governance, long championed by the NLD and one of America’s best exports to the region. Further, history demonstrates that the people of Burma have no misguided affections for their northern neighbor.
To paraphrase former British prime minister Winston Churchill, the price of America’s greatness is a responsibility to stand by courageous democrats in Burma. Congress has done so in the past, and should continue to do so as long as they struggle for justice and freedom in their country.
Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire is a ranking member of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee.