April 2009, Far Eastern Economic Review
Will Change Come to Burma?
by Aung Din
When I visited Thailand in February, my colleagues, exile Burmese activists there, asked me the following: How will the United States change its policy on Burma? When I was in Japan last month, many people, including some Japanese MPs, asked the same question. When I call my friends inside Burma, they too ask how will President Barack Obama change America’s Burma policy? All await the U.S. policy review on Burma with concern, frustration and expectation.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that sanctions applied by the U.S. and the European Union, as well as the policy of constructive engagement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Burma’s neighbors, were not working and a policy review was necessary.
Since then, many people have raised their voices to be heard by policy makers in Foggy Bottom. Some individuals have encouraged the U.S. government to lift some or all of the sanctions in an attempt to influence the generals. The humanitarian community has lobbied to increase humanitarian assistance without conditions. Some even call for direct engagement with the regime by offering development assistance.
Secretary Clinton is absolutely correct that neither sanctions nor engagement have brought about a democratic transition in Burma. But why? Since 1997, the U.S. and the EU applied limited economic sanctions, which were incrementally strengthened as the regime increased its brutality. A major, multilateral diplomatic effort to get Asean members and Burma’s neighbors on board with those sanctions was never fully implemented.
Meanwhile, Burma’s neighbors—including China, India and Asean members—carried out a policy of constructive engagement. Clearly, sanctions had little chance of success while those who Burma depends on most carried on talking and trading with the regime. In truth, the policy of “engagement” was a façade to mask their economic interests. When they secured business concessions from the regime, their call for positive change in Burma disappeared, they defended the regime and blamed Western countries for using punitive measures.
Sadly, after all these years, sanctions and engagement, necessary tools in every country’s foreign-policy arsenal to attempt to change the murderous behavior of a regime, have not been appropriately employed in the case of Burma. So, how can we make sanctions and engagement dually effective?
First, the U.S should maintain its current sanctions. Lifting sanctions unilaterally will only strengthen the regime and weaken and hurt the democratic opposition inside Burma. Sanctions prove that the world’s democratic nations actively denounce the regime’s crimes against humanity and that they fully support the courageous actions of Burma’s democrats and ethnic nationalities.
Second, the U.S. should work with its key partners in Asia to make progress in Burma. China, Burma’s closet ally, is a major weapons supplier and defender of the regime. China claims that Burma is a matter for Asean, while Asean argues that China should persuade the regime to change. By doing so, they wash their hands of dealing with the regime. The U.S. should not wait until they settle their dispute.
Instead, the Obama administration and its EU partners should work directly with the governments of Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, all of which have stated their willingness to see positive change in Burma and their desire to mediate between the U.S., the EU and the regime. These governments have also expressed sympathy for Burma’s democracy movement, eagerness to improve the image of Asean, and perhaps most importantly, they have good relations with the regime. For these reasons they should be made key partners to assure both sanctions and engagement are effective in Burma.
China and India have clearly demonstrated that their first and only priority in Burma is their economic interests and not the welfare of the people of Burma. Let them be shamed not embraced as partners—eventually, perhaps, they will choose to take part as they will not want to be sidelined.
Third, we also support U.S. direct engagement with the regime. However, direct engagement should only be with the regime’s sole decision maker, Senior Gen. Than Shwe. Meetings with other officials, who are not involved in decision making, will not produce results. Direct engagement should be aimed at solving problems in Burma, while bearing in mind the regime’s desire to hold on to power at all costs. An under appreciation of this reality is one of the main reasons for the failure of the United Nations’ engagement in Burma over 18 years.
The Obama administration must realize that setting a new policy toward Burma is extremely important because it will affect the policies of other nations. Still, the policy review is most important for the people of Burma, who have time and again courageously expressed their desire to be free from military dictatorship—in the popular democracy uprising of 1988; the elections of 1990; the subsequent protests of 1991, 1996, 1998, 2000 and August 2007; and of course in the powerful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks and nuns in September 2007, known as the Saffron Revolution.
The Burmese people have proved their willingness to obtain democracy and human rights with their blood—and they will do so again and again until the international community takes effective and collective action.
Aung Din served over four years in prison in Burma, as a political prisoner between 1989 and 1993. He is now the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, which advocates the U.S. Congress and administration regarding U.S. policy on Burma.