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The Right Way to Engage Burma

Insist on democratic reforms.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By ELLEN BORK
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A cartoon on the front page of the August 2 Independent, a weekly journal published in Burma’s capital, showed a rider approaching a fortress painted with the stars and stripes of the American flag.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

Newscom

“Please open the door,” the rider says.

“What is the password?” asks a voice from within the fortress.

“Democracy,” says the rider. 

“Is that permanent or temporary?” asks America.

The cartoon poses two questions: Is Burma’s surprising, opaque political opening for real? And how much are Burma’s leaders motivated by a desire for closer ties with the United States? The answers will shape America’s Burma policy as both Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s democracy movement, and President Thein Sein, the reformist former general, visit the United States this month. 

Burma’s thaw looks promising. President Thein Sein is taking steps no one predicted when he traded his military uniform for a coat and tie after an electoral exercise in 2010 that perpetuated the military government behind a civilian veneer. Last month, the government ended prepublication censorship and replaced the reviled information minister. Political exiles were welcomed home, and commemorations of August 8, 1988—the date of a protest marking the beginning of Burma’s democracy movement, known as 8888—were held with the participation of two reformist government ministers. In recognition of these positive steps, the Obama administration has lifted sanctions targeted specifically against Thein Sein and the speaker of Burma’s parliament, Shwe Mann.

Most important, Aung San Suu Kyi has been able to return to politics after the better part of two decades under house arrest. The military regime prevented her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), from taking power after its landslide 1990 election victory. Following her release, she and her party ran in the April 2012 by-elections, winning 43 of 44 seats it contested, including in Naypidaw, the capital, inhabited mostly by government workers. The NLD’s small parliamentary presence belies its enormous influence. Aung San Suu Kyi and the president have met several times, and she commands enormous international support. On September 19, she met President Obama at the White House and received Congress’s highest award, the Gold Medal, in Washington, D.C.

Democracy advocates inside and outside Burma worry that U.S. policy is changing too fast before reforms are consolidated. Political prisoners remain in jail—even one is too many, Aung San Suu Kyi has always said. U.S. officials also voice doubts. “There are forces that would take the country in the wrong direction if given the chance,” warned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an appearance with Suu Kyi at the U.S. Institute of Peace on September 18. One factor in the “backsliding” Secretary Clinton is concerned about is Burma’s 2008 constitution, which gives a large role to the military. That constitution “is not consistent with democratic values,” said U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell at his June confirmation hearing, adding, “Until those fundamentals change you do have a question of whether .  .  . the military or others associated with it can reverse what’s going on.”

As for why Burma’s thaw began, speculation runs from the impact of U.S. and European sanctions, including investment bans and travel restrictions on top officials and tycoons, to President Thein Sein’s shock upon seeing the gap between Burma’s development and that of nearby Laos and Vietnam.

A third line of speculation has it that Thein Sein and other leaders are wary of neighboring China, which has invested heavily in Burma and seeks access through Burma to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Under this theory, Burma’s president had to reform enough that Washington could end sanctions, upgrade diplomatic ties, and enable military relations. This view got a boost when the president suspended the unpopular Myitsone dam project, backed by a Chinese state-owned firm. Many Burmese were elated.

A recent report by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies threw cold water on this notion, calling the China factor in Burma’s opening “overstated.” To the contrary, the report’s authors said that in meetings with members of the government in Burma, their contacts “encouraged the United States to avoid zero-sum policies toward China” and recommended Washington “explore collaboration with China in Myanmar.” The desire of Burmese leaders to get along with China and avoid Burma’s becoming a geopolitical prize is understandable. Burmese public opinion, however, should not be overlooked.

Burma’s people “want very much to be associated with the United States,” according to journalist Maung Wuntha. “They believe that the ability to resist China depends on strong relationships with the United States and Europe.” They also welcome U.S. investment. “American businessmen are more gentlemen than Chinese,” said a Mandalay-based writer, Thint Nor. “It is too early to lift all the sanctions,” said Zan, his friend and fellow writer, who ate toasted rats in prison. Washington should be wary of dealings with military-connected businessmen in Burma. “They should really take care,” said Moe Thway, a young activist with the group Generation Wave, lest crony businessmen “wash their money in a U.S.-made washing machine.”

The potential for investment to improve Burma’s economy—or to enrich “the cronies”—is not the only thing on Burmese minds. A democratic overhaul should also transform Burma’s foreign policy, argued Aung Shin, a poet and NLD elder who served nine years in jail. He was upset by Burma’s early August vote against a U.N. resolution criticizing Syria’s use of heavy weapons in civilian areas and other human rights abuses. That put Burma in the company of Iran, Belarus, North Korea, Russia, and, of course, China. “We don’t like it,” he said, slowly shaking his head. “No!” he corrected himself. “Not ‘don’t like.’ We hate it.”

Burma wouldn’t be the first military dictatorship to move toward reform out of a desire to improve relations
with the United States. Even countries with extensive ties to the United States—like South Korea and Taiwan—reacted to changes in their domestic and strategic situations by taking steps toward democracy. The desire to attract support from democracies has even been suggested as a reason that the king of Bhutan, snug up against the border of Chinese-occupied Tibet, introduced democratic change.

Burma’s leaders may be circumspect about China’s influence as a factor in political reform and ties with the United States. President Thein Sein’s visit to New York begins after he pays a call on Chinese leaders in Beijing.

One doesn’t choose one’s neighbors, Aung San Suu Kyi has said. But Burma’s people do want to choose their friends.

Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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