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.” The generals have played lip service to engagement with ASEAN while making few if any concessions on democratic change. This is where some analysts believe a US carrot and stick approach – mixing humanitarian aid with targeted sanctions – could change the regime’s behavior. Campbell said that humanitarian assistance would be expanded “to the extent we are confident the assistance is reaching the people in need”.
He did not say whether the restitution of US aid would be strictly through the old capital city of Rangoon or divided between central Burma and refugee and internally displaced persons populations along the Thai-Burmese border. The US provided limited aid to Burma during rescue operations for last year’s Cyclone Nargis, which the UN estimated adversely impacted over 2.4 million people.
The new US policy intends for now to maintain sanctions at their current level, including the so-called “smart” sanctions imposed in recent years against individual junta members and their associates. However, it was also made clear by Campbell that discussion of easing sanctions would be possible if significant reforms were taken “to address core human rights and democracy issues that are inhibiting [Myanmar’s] progress”.
As a stick, he said the US has reserved the right to apply additional targeted sanctions against the regime, “if warranted, by events inside [Myanmar].” The reference is clearly aimed at putting the generals on notice that further repression, such as the crackdown on Buddhist monk-led demonstrators in September 2007, would risk future engagement.
The policy shift has already stirred debate among Myanmar watchers. “I think it all depends on what we mean by sanctions and engagement,” wrote former UN official and historian Thant Myint U to Asia Times Online. “If by engagement we simply mean talking to the generals, then I suppose talking to them while keeping sanctions could make sense, at least in the short term, offering as Secretary Clinton said, to relax the sanctions as the talks progress.”
He added, “I can see why keeping some of the sanctions makes sense – the arms embargo for example or sanctions on specific individuals – but the restrictions on international aid including development aid, and the broad trade and investment sanctions should, I think, be replaced by a efforts to actively promote the kind of trade and investment and tourism that might actually help open up the country and undermine the status quo.”
One near-term measure of the policy’s success will center on the 2010 elections. Clinton said last week that “now is not the time to endorse or dismiss the process” and that “we urge [concerned Burmese parties] to take a measured approach to the 2010 elections until we can assess electoral conditions and determine whether opposition and ethnic groups will participate.”
Clinton continued, “At the same time, we should continue discussions with the [Myanmar] authorities to emphasize that the international community will only recognize the planned 2010 elections as a positive step to the extent that the [Myanmar] authorities allow full participation by members of [Myanmar’s] opposition and ethnic minority groups.”
Campbell said that while the US government is skeptical that elections will be either free or fair, it will stress to the regime what conditions would be acceptable by Washington to label the electoral process credible.
The junta has so far ignored calls by opposition groups to amend the 2008 constitution or to state clearly under what terms political parties can organize and how the electoral process will be managed. Government intransigence and a widely perceived rigged national referendum to approve a new constitution last year has left many in the political opposition dubious about the prospects for the upcoming election.
The situation is not helped by the fact that most key opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD chairman U Tin Oo, Shan National League for Democracy leader U Khun Tun Oo and 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing still remain either in prison or under house arrest. Meanwhile, calls by ethnic minority leaders for constitutional provisions guaranteeing their political, social and cultural rights were ignored by the junta in drafting the 2008 constitution.
Several of the ethnic political groups have declared they will likely not participate in the elections. Ethnic insurgent groups who have maintained ceasefires with the regime for over 20 years suddenly saw their status in jeopardy last month when government troops attacked and routed a ceasefire group, the Kokang, on the Burma-China border. The ceasefire groups have been under mounting pressure to turn their troops over to government control and form political parties to join the election process.
In order to make the elections acceptable to the US, the junta will need to involve both the political opposition and the ethnic minorities in the process. Clinton called for the junta’s engagement with the political opposition and ethnic groups to ascertain their desire for the democratic reform process. This was echoed by Campbell, who said that the US will push for “initiation of a credible internal dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority leaders on elements of reconciliation and reform”.
This call was supported by detained pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, who through her lawyer welcomed US intentions to diplomatically engage the generals, but reiterated that the opposition should also be consulted. A letter written by Suu Kyi to Burma’s military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and due to be officially submitted in the coming days, seeks permission to meet with foreign ambassadors in Rangoon to learn their views on the US policy shift.
The first substantive talks with Burma’s officials are expected to take place on the sidelines of the current UN General Assembly, which is being attended by Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Prime Minister General Thein Sein, the highest-ranking Burmese leader to attend in 14 years. The US waived travel restrictions to junta members, allowing them to leave New York and travel to Washington during their stay.
The question going forward is whether Burma’s rulers are serious about reaching out to the US or simply employing another of their diversionary tactics to draw attention away from other issues in the lead up to the elections. It’s a tactic the regime has frequently used in the past when dealing with the United Nations. And it’s not clear to most the generals will accept any compromise suggested by the US that weakens their hold on power.
Asia Times Online