The Barack Obama administration has broken ranks with its recent predecessors in announcing its intention to engage Burma’s ruling generals while also maintaining economic and financial sanctions against the military regime. The outgoing George W Bush administration imposed new financial sanctions against individual regime members and their associates, and often referred to Burma as an “outpost of tyranny”.
The announcement, previewed on the sidelines of a United Nations General Assembly meeting on September 23, marks the most radical shift in US policy towards Burma since economic sanctions were first imposed in the 1990s in response to the regime’s reported human-rights abuses.
It also apparently puts new pressure on the regime to ensure that democratic elections scheduled for next year are free, fair and inclusive of the political opposition and ethnic minority groups. At a press conference on Monday, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell made official the shift in policy towards a mix of sanctions and engagement.
“For the first time in memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an interest in engaging with the United States, and we intend to explore that interest,” Campbell told reporters.
He also said that the US government will press Burma “to comply with its international obligations, including on nonproliferation, ending any prohibited military or proliferation-related cooperation with North Korea, and full compliance with United Nations [Security Council Resolutions] 1874 and 1718”.
That referred to recent reports that North Korea has provided assistance to Burma’s nascent civilian nuclear program, which some fear could lead eventually to the development of a weapon. The two isolationist regimes were linked in July when a North Korean cargo ship believed to be carrying weapons and headed to Burma was pressured by the US Navy to return to North Korea.
The US policy review process began in February after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that neither sanctions nor the engagement policies practiced by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Asian nations had achieved positive results in moving the regime towards democratic change and that a new strategy was needed. Senator Jim Webb’s high-profile visit with senior junta members last month also hinted a move towards more policy engagement was on the cards.
US interests go beyond mere political change in Burma. Clinton emphasized in her comments last week the various regional security concerns emanating from Burma, including the outflow of narcotics, rampant human trafficking, large refugee populations in neighboring countries, and communicable disease. She also mentioned the regime’s links to North Korea and the threat of nuclear proliferation in the region.
Washington is clearly hoping that through engagement it can bring Burma into a framework where international norms apply, including in security matters. This may yet be a long hope for a country with a long history of official xenophobia and defiance of international opinion. Yet it is notable that the US State Department said that it was the generals who are seeking engagement with the US, not the other way around.
Both Clinton and Campbell have made it clear that US policy would be unwavering in its commitment to pushing for democratic reform, the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and serious dialogue between the regime, the democratic opposition and ethnic minority groups. Clinton said, “Our support for the country’s democratic opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, will not waver.” Continue reading “US takes a radical turn on Burma”