Monday, April 27, 2009

A better approach to Myanmar

By Ralph A. Cossa

(Honolulu Advertiser) -Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently observed that U.S. policy toward Burma, as followed by her husband's administration and by the Bush administrations that came before and afterward, is not working.

She's absolutely right. Before those in Southeast Asia and elsewhere start a chorus of "I told you so," however, Secretary Clinton also observed, equally correctly, that the policy followed by Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors had likewise failed to bring about much needed and promised reform in one of the world's few remaining totally despotic nations — in Asia, only North Korea rivals Burma for top position.

The U.S. position toward Burma has long been one of total isolation and strict sanctions until such time as the ruling junta recognizes the results of the 1990 election that should have brought Nobel Laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy to power. This is simply not going to happen. Meanwhile, the 10 nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose image is burdened by having Myanmar — the name preferred by Burma and its neighbors — as a member have long argued that "constructive engagement" is the best path to reform. The ruling junta has thus far successfully resisted both approaches.

That a new policy is needed is beyond dispute. What that policy should or will be is far from clear.

Some have argued that the Six-Party Talks process being used in Northeast Asia to try to bring about Korean Peninsula denuclearization is a possible format to follow. However, finding a lowest common denominator among Burma, the rest of ASEAN, China, India, Japan and the United States will almost guarantee failure. It also puts Burma too much in the driver's seat; like Pyongyang does at the Six-Party Talks, Rangoon could set the terms of the debate and disrupt the process simply by walking out whenever things are not going completely its way. Besides, China has long demonstrated that when it comes to Burma, Beijing is not eager to be part of the solution, out of concern for "interfering in (Myanmar's) internal affairs."

Others have argued for business as usual. In a letter to Secretary Clinton, 17 members of the U.S. Congress reminded her that the lifting of current sanctions against Burma required that the ruling junta first release all political prisoners (Aung Sang Suu Kyi being first among some 2,100 suspected to remain in captivity) and also engage in genuine dialogue with the NLD and with the nation's troubled ethnic nationalities as well. It completely rejects Burma's new constitution and the sham referendum that "endorsed" it as the fraud that they both are. This approach clearly takes the moral high road. But it remains a road to nowhere, proposing a policy that feels good rather than does good.

Finding a middle-ground approach toward Burma does not require Washington to abandon its principles. No one expects that the U.S. is going to embrace the junta any time soon. But U.S. sanctions need to be more targeted against the government and its leaders and not against the people themselves. As the International Crisis Group argued last October, "It is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change. ... Twenty years of aid restrictions — which see Myanmar receiving 20 times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries — have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change." The bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted. The U.S. provision of humanitarian assistance during Cyclone Nargis last year was a step in the right direction. The aid offer, and the junta's initial reluctance to accept it, resulted in the rest of ASEAN arguing for, rather than against, the U.S. position; this is the circumstance we need to continue to create.

This does not equate to "abandoning" Aung Sang Suu Kyi, as critics claim, but involves accepting that the near-term goal is not her immediate assumption of power but the restoration of some form of democratic process, which can hopefully lead to that long-term goal.

To this end, the U.S. and ASEAN should agree upon a strategy for compelling the junta to live up to its own promises and then judging it by its own standards, not ours. The junta claims that as part of its "road map to democracy," it will hold "free and fair elections" and to then turn over the reins to a civilian government by 2010. Without endorsing the vehicles that got them to this point — the constitution and referendum — we can still join hands with ASEAN in insisting that the junta live up to these promises and insist on measurable milestones. This will at least put the U.S. and the rest of ASEAN on the same side and put the spotlight and pressure where it really belongs.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum CSIS. He met with Aung Sang Suu Kyi in May 2002, when he became the first foreigner ever to lecture at NLD headquarters in Rangoon. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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