US’s Burma Policy Seems to be Floundering- The Irrawaddy


Despite the US Senate vote to renew sanctions, America’s Burma policy seems to be floundering as Washington tries to address challenges throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

While US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton maintains rhetorical pressure on the military government in Burma, questions remain about the impact of and viability of American policy toward Burma.

Speaking in Hanoi, Clinton said that the US is “deeply concerned about the oppression taking place” inside the country, despite an election slated for sometime later this year. Since highly restrictive election laws were announced earlier this year, the US has repeatedly stated that the vote is unlikely to be free and fair.

The promulgation of the election laws came after the US said it was adopting a more open-minded approach to dealing with the Burmese junta, pledging to review existing sanctions if some reform measures were taken by the Burmese rulers.

In a reminder of US criteria, Clinton said today, “We urge Burma to put in place the necessary conditions for credible elections, including releasing all political prisoners, respecting basic human rights and ceasing attacks against ethnic minorities.” The US has consistently shied away from calling for the controversial 2008 Constitution to be revised.

The election laws were taken as a slap in the face by the US administration, which looks set to maintain economic sanctions on the regime and its associates. The US Congress on Thursday renewed a ban on imports from the country for another year, with the Senate voting almost unanimously to extend the sanctions. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama to sign it. The law bans trade with and freezes assets belonging to companies tied to the junta.

The EU and Australia also apply sanctions against the Burmese rulers and associated businesses, but key trade and diplomatic partners in Asia do not, leaving many to argue that the sanctions have little influence on the Burmese rulers, though the efforts made by junta business ally Tay Za’s family to have EU sanctions against one of his son’s lifted, suggests that elites inside Burma do feel the pinch somewhat.

When the US announced that it was extending a hand to the Burmese rulers, some Asean states spun this as recognition that their softly-softly political engagement of the regime, coupled with lucrative and burgeoning trade and investment links, was a better means to try to influence the junta. The US denied that this was implied in its policy shift, which it said was not really a shift at all, maintaining that sanctions remained necessary.

However, the US did not spell out clearly and decisively what it meant by its proposed engagement, allowing self-styled pragmatists to state their case more decisively and imply that proponents of sanctions are naive, moralistic ideologues propounding an untenable policy.

It might be more pragmatic, however, to see that there is scant pragmatism in bankrolling Burma’s oppressive status quo, if there is also a hope that democratization and reform will come to Burma in return, as Singapore, Thailand, et al, reiterate. Those that oppose sanctions have no apparent strategy designed to influence or achieve such an outcome. The status quo benefits all sides concerned, in the pocket, and in the short term.

The bottom line is, of course, if countries with real economic influence over Burma—such as China, India, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea—put more pressure on the regime, then sanctions might then be a viable means to such an end. The mantra of “non-interference” is usually trotted out to justify a lax approach, but of course the reality is that by providing the Burmese generals with billions of dollars in revenue and diplomatic cover, this non-interference is de facto propping up a military government that has lasted since 1962.

As for the Americans, they have never sold the need for sanctions to the Burmese junta’s partners.

If more widely applied targeted sanctions could make a difference, as the Americans imply, but never say too forcefully or cogently, then why not spell this out to Burma’s allies and neighbors?

The Obama administration has been at pains to put daylight between it and its predecessor, with much lip-service being paid to “smart” policy and “realist” foreign policy thinking, and an almost-ideological zeal to appear as non-ideological as possible. There seems to be a sort of sacramental thinking applied here—that by using such adjectives, the so-called smart and realistic policy therefore is automatically rendered smart and realistic in the real world. It is a delusion akin to an author who thinks that by writing about a chair, he or she has thereby transformed literature into furniture.

However, the US has not said clearly how either sanctions or engagement or a mixture can influence change in Burma, or what it would like to see by way of partnership from Burma’s democratic neighbors, who pay lip service to their hope for change in Burma.

The US might be smarter and more realistic to remind Burma’s neighbors that it is in their long-term interest to see a stable, free Burma. After all, it seems that the US outreach to Burma is also based on realism—and national self-interest—as part of Washington’s strategy to cope with the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Surely Thailand—a US treaty ally—could be persuaded to see that if the junta was forced to adopt real reforms, it could benefit the impoverished Burmans and ethnic minorities which have fled across the border to Thailand, and facilitate a return home for Thailand’s massive Burmese immigrant community? Moreover, the opaque nature of rule in Burma means that nobody really knows what the regime is thinking or doing, with consequences for regional security as seen in ongoing defector revelations about military and nuclear cooperation with North Korea.

Surely the US could state this clearly to India, the world’s largest democracy, in advance of Than Shwe’s July 25 visit to the country, as surely India does not want a North Korea-backed nuclear state on its borders? India itself is a nuclear power, but as a democracy it has civilian control over the military. The US could remind India that a nuclear-armed military dictatorship next door is hardly worth a few extra oil and gas concessions, given that the US sees itself as a smart exponent of foreign policy realism.

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