NEWS ANALYSIS – By SIMON ROUGHNEEN
Mere days after the US announced it would alter its Burma policy, the Burmese courts refused to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. While her appeal was never likely to succeed, the timing of the denial arrives as a clear signal that change will not come quickly in Burma.
Not that anyone was expecting it. Addressing a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Burma in Washington last week, Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, acknowledged that “a long and difficult process” lay ahead. Tough US sanctions, Campbell said, will remain in place until the United States sees “concrete progress toward reform” in Burma, and he added that more sanctions could be imposed if changes are not forthcoming.
Suu Kyi’s release is one of the conditions laid down by the US for a relaxation or even removal of sanctions, which have been in place since the Clinton era, first signed into law in 1997.
The junta has claimed that sanctions are immoral, and hurt the Burmese people—a view which is disputed by many experts who say that the majority of the Burmese people do not participate in the lucrative resource extraction and export economy. Sanctions have not loosened the junta’s grip on power—though it is debatable whether this was ever the intention—with sanctions aiming to deny the regime international legitimacy and punishing it for its authoritarian rule.
China, India, Japan and Burma’s Asean counterparts all do business with the regime, giving it alternatives to make up for the lack of Western involvement, a few cases such as Chevron and Total notwithstanding.
Given that the regime is notoriously averse to anything it deems as outside interference, precedent suggests that the US dialogue will have little or no chance of achieving anything of note domestically. The snap verdict against Suu Kyi’s appeal is indicative—though more encouraging is the weekend exchanges between Suu Kyi and senior regime officials, where rumors circulate that she wants to work with the generals to try to negotiate an end to sanctions.
Suu Kyi’s assistance on relaxing sanctions would doubtless require a quid pro quo, perhaps at least her release and the release of at least some of the remaining political prisoners held in Burmese prisons.
Whether or not the generals would agree to a process that involves meeting key NLD and US demands, in advance of 2010 election, remains to be seen.
The US may have other reasons for opening dialogue with the junta: reasons that do not have any direct link with improving the human rights situation in the country, or more distant goals, such as revising the flawed 2008 constitution, or arm-twisting the generals into holding free and fair elections next year.
As Campbell put it, “Our policy review also was informed by the fact that, for the first time in recent memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an active interest in engaging with the United States. But, let me be clear: we have decided to engage with Burma because we believe it is in our interest to do so.”
US interests are both stated and unstated. Allegations that the junta is working with North Korea on nuclear technology have neither been proven nor disproven. However, the US is taking this seriously.
In his testimony, Campbell said: “We also focused on emerging questions and concerns regarding Burma’s relationship with North Korea, particularly in light of the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which prohibits member states from engaging in trade with North Korea in virtually all conventional weapons as well as in sensitive technologies, including those related to ballistic missiles and nuclear and other WMD programs.”
The US wants to bring Burma more closely into its counter-proliferation activity, which, in general, has met with varied success. Despite entreaties from the White House, North Korea tested missiles earlier this year, and Iran’s second, “secret” facility at Qom led to a behind-the-scenes dispute between President Obama on the one hand, and French President Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Brown on the other, at the UN.
In keeping with the non-proliferation theme at the UN, the junta offered what could be a subtle hint to the US about what is on the table. Prime Minister Thein Sein said the following in his address to the UN General Assembly last week –
“The continued existence of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, poses the greatest threat to mankind. Myanmar believes that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the single absolute guarantee against the threat or use of those weapons.”
Neither Campbell nor other senior US officials have gone into any great detail about the junta’s relationship with China. However, it may be that the US is engaging with Burma to loosen the bonds between Napyidaw and Beijing, for geo-strategic reasons.
In June, Naypyidaw and Beijing set a September 2009 start date for the construction of twin oil and gas pipelines from the Bay of Bengal to Kunming in Yunnan Province.
As Ian J. Storey of the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies outlined in a recent article, “The pipelines make both economic and strategic sense for China. They will provide a regular supply of energy to the country’s landlocked southwest provinces and will also bypass the Strait of Malacca. In late 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao noted with concern that 80 percent of the country’s energy supplies passed through the strait, and that because “certain major powers” (meaning, presumably, the United States and its allies) were trying to control it, the waterway was a strategic vulnerability.”
The new pipelines will reduce US leverage over China in international waters, and in the event of a conflict between the two, say over Taiwan, China would be less vulnerable to US naval action, or an attempt to blockade imports and exports.
While the deal is sealed, and the estimated US $30 billion-plus in annual revenues would be a huge windfall for the junta, Beijing might not necessarily trust the junta’s intentions. Contravening China’s wishes, the generals seem set on reining in the 16 remaining ethnic militias in the borderlands, by force if necessary, before elections next year. This clearly makes Beijing nervous, as the proposed pipeline will pass through ethnic regions en route to China.
While China did not react negatively to the new US policy, in any direct way, in the days after the US announcement, a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued on Sept. 26 urged the Burmese junta to ensure the security of Chinese citizens living near the conflict area and to avoid any further clashes, after the late August attack on the ethnic Chinese Kokang militia in Burma’s northern Shan State, which drove more than 35,000 refugees into Yunnan Province in China.
Last week, Chinese authorities in Lingang, bordering Burma, demanded 280 million yuan (US $41 million) in compensation from the Burmese regime for damages incurred during a junta offensive in Kokang in late August. The timing of the two statements—one in the days leading up to the US initiative, and the other immediately after, hint that Beijing is unhappy about the possibility of increased US influence in Burma, which as the US outlines, is something the junta has been seeking for some time, perhaps to avoid being over-dependent on big brother in Beijing.
More than 90 percent of direct foreign investment in Burma last year was Chinese, and China has supported the regime at crucial moments in the UN Security Council— including a decisive vote in January that led to China’s state petroleum company acquiring the rights to the proposed pipelines.
Thus, it appears both countries are in a relationship of mutual convenience, rather than an iron-clad alliance. On Oct. 4, China joined with 46 other countries in a UN Human Rights Council statement asking for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.
The US is changing the game—internationally at least. What US engagement may mean for Burma’s domestic situation is not clear, and the US by its own admission, is not optimistic about any quick changes.
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