Offering to talk to the junta can work, but only under certain conditions.
he Obama administration recently clarified its intentions to expand direct contact with the Burmese junta, starting with a meeting with junta officials in New York this week. For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi—the democratically elected leader of Burma barred by the junta from taking power for two decades—has made some moves of her own to restart dialogue, sending a letter to junta leader Than Shwe offering to work with the military regime to ease Burma’s pariah status and help get western sanctions lifted. For both the United States and Ms. Suu Kyi, there are big risks but also potential rewards for laying their cards on the table with the junta.
Ms. Suu Kyi has mastered the skill of being tactically flexible while adhering to core principles and focusing on the long-term goals. Her offer to help ease sanctions is a vintage Suu Kyi tactic. While reiterating that the sanctions are not hers to lift or keep, she correctly acknowledges the ability to make things better or worse for the junta on this score. The letter appears conciliatory, but in reality seems designed to put the junta on the defensive. Those who are frustrated by the junta’s determined hold on power will take note of her continued willingness and ability to confront the regime. After more than 20 years in power, the junta itself has made remarkably little progress in its efforts to establish legitimacy at home or abroad. Ms. Suu Kyi’s very existence serves as a constant check on their efforts to establish legitimacy and she seems fully aware of the power this gives her.
Ms. Suu Kyi also appears to make a virtue of her current house arrest at the hands of the junta by asking for briefings on the impact of sanctions from representatives of the countries that imposed them. She also wants to discuss her findings with her fellow party members—difficult to do while under house arrest. She apparently has repeated her long-standing request for discussions with humanitarian organizations on both the problems they are seeing in Burma and ways that they can work with the democratic opposition to help resolve them. By positioning herself as objectively looking at the facts and willing to adapt her views accordingly, she contrasts her reasonableness with both the obdurate ridiculousness of the junta and the rigid image that her critics have attempted to create.
Ms. Suu Kyi has a limited ability to communicate her messages directly, due to her confinement. She thus runs a risk that her tactics will be misunderstood as compromises of the principles that give her moral authority. This has already happened to a degree, as reports by news outlets like CNN, the Independent and the Associated Press have portrayed her latest move as a complete turnabout when it is nothing of the sort. However, the bigger risk of her approach is that the western countries she relies on to give substance to her leverage over sanctions will abandon her by attempting to cut their own deals with the junta. Herein lies the danger for the Obama administration as well. Having shown tactical flexibility with its own bid for direct talks, the U.S. now must likewise exhibit an uncompromising commitment to principle. In rolling out their new approach, Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Kurt Campbell said “we will continue to push for the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with ethnic minorities and gross human rights violations, and initiation of a credible internal political dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority leaders on elements of reconciliation and reform.” He also indicated that there will be no move to lift sanctions until and unless the junta takes concrete steps on these core concerns.
Even with these caveats, the Obama team runs the risk of sending a misleading message to the generals that they are being brought in from the cold, especially in light of Senator James Webb’s recent trip to Burma and his recent statements. Mr. Webb seems to want the U.S. to emulate China’s behavior in Burma and abandon principled support for the democracy movement to better check China’s influence. He has expressed unqualified support for the junta’s planned 2010 elections, which will institutionalize military rule, and has called for preemptive lifting of sanctions. There is a significant difference between that version of engagement and the kind Ms. Suu Kyi supports. She has already seemed to publicly rebuke the senator for putting words in her mouth about sanctions. Senator Webb’s clumsy efforts could easily undercut the kind of sophisticated diplomacy that the Obama administration hopes to employ.
Ms. Suu Kyi has signaled that she will not be sidelined by any new engagement track the U.S. opens, but rather that she is integral to its success. Her invitation to talk to the regime about sanctions—together with the new U.S. outreach—puts the onus squarely where it belongs: on Than Shwe and the junta. Should the generals choose to ignore her offer or attempt to negotiate directly with the U.S., she seems poised to revoke her qualified support for engagement, leaving the Obama administration in the politically difficult position of engaging with the regime without her blessing. That would be a losing gamble for the U.S., and more importantly, for the Burmese people.
Ms. Currie is a non-resident fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank in Washington. She previously served as a political appointee working on Asia policy at the U.S. Department of State during the George W. Bush administration.