Reaching Out to Burma

Engagement’ has been tried before—and it didn’t work.

U.S. diplomats Kurt Campbell and Scot Marciel are visiting Burma this week to test the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement with authoritarian regimes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asserted this policy will “help achieve democratic reform.” But this approach has been tried before—and it didn’t work.

Westerners who believe they can “engage” the generals to make them change their ways are naïve. Burma’s ruling generals don’t receive Western visitors because they are interested in learning anything from them. They talk to outsiders because they think they can use them to get critics off their backs and remain in power. Foreigners, whether they advocate “engagement” or sanctions, have always overestimated their own importance. Burma’s generals listen only to themselves and any change would have to come from within the armed forces—the country’s most powerful institution—and not from sweet-talking diplomats.

It is easy to forget that Sen. Jim Webb’s visit to Burma in August, hailed by some foreign diplomats as a “breakthrough,” was far from the first of its kind. In February 1994, Congressman Bill Richardson—now the governor of New Mexico—paid a highly publicized visit to Burma. Unlike Mr. Webb, he was allowed to bring an American correspondent with him, Philip Shanon of the New York Times. They met prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi—who also then was under house arrest—and intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt. Ms. Suu Kyi, then as well as now, expressed her willingness to talk to the junta. At the time, Mr. Richardson’s visit was also described as a “breakthrough”—although he himself was very cautious in his remarks and just said that change may come if there were a dialogue between Ms. Suu Kyi and Gen. Khin Nyunt. That did not happen, and after a second visit to Burma in May 1995, Mr. Richardson stated at a press conference in Bangkok that his trip had been “unsuccessful, frustrating and disappointing. Here’s my conclusion after my trip. There is serious repression, regression and retrenchment by the [junta] in the area of human rights and democratization.”

The next “breakthrough” came when, in April 2000, Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail was appointed as the United Nations’ special envoy to Burma. He initiated talks between Ms. Suu Kyi and the generals, which began in October of that year. In May 2002, he scored an even more important success by securing Ms. Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. But a year later she was detained again. In January 2006, Mr. Razali quit his post after being refused entry to the country for nearly two years. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, he admitted he had failed in his job “to help broker an agreement between the government and opposition that would lead the country towards democracy.”

His successor, Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari, was equally unsuccessful. After the junta had suppressed a September 2007 movement for change led by Buddhist monks, Mr. Gambari visited Burma and the U.N. said in a statement that, “We now have a process going which would lead to substantive dialogue.” Mr. Gambari himself said that national reconciliation had begun as the government had appointed a “Minister for Liaison,” Maj. Gen. Aung Kyi, to “smooth relations” with Ms. Suu Kyi.

Two years later, we are back at square one. The junta insists that it has to follow its “seven-step road map to democracy” and that “free and fair elections” will be held next year. But few inside the country seem to believe that these “elections” will lead to anything more than ensuring the military’s grip on the country. Many ordinary Burmese are saying it is just another government-orchestrated event in which they are required to participate, not unlike the last year’s “referendum” in which a new constitution was approved by a Stalinesque 92% of the electorate. That is the path the junta wants to follow, and they are not going to negotiate their own demise with some foreign emissaries.

Nor is it likely that Western pressure—or engagement—is going to improve the human-rights situation inside the country. Just days before the U.S. envoys arrived Tuesday the military raided the homes of journalists and activists, detaining about 50 people in a crackdown on overseas private donations for victims of the devastating May 2008 cyclone Nargis. And just by coincidence as the American visitors arrived, the military put on a drug-burning show in the country’s remote northeastern region. The drugs were said to have been seized from a local army, which, until it ceased being an ally and broke with the government in August this year, had been praised by the authorities for its “drug-suppression efforts.”

The show goes on. The military has a clear vision of what kind of state Burma should be—and that is not a democracy. It is sometimes argued that the hopes for a more pluralistic society rest on the next generation army officers. Aware of this danger, officers have been given unprecedented privileges and business opportunities in order to retain their loyalty to the regime. There are no Young Turks lurking in the wings.

Still, Burma’s only hope for the future is that some officers, young or old, will change their minds. Until that happens, nothing is likely to change. And emissaries sent by the U.S. or any other Western power are likely to end up being as frustrated as Mr. Richardson was 14 years ago.

Mr. Lintner is a Swedish journalist based in Thailand and author of several books on Burma.

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