Wednesday, April 1, 2009

It’s Time to Play the Villains’ Game

The Irrawaddy News

Sometimes it’s necessary to play the villains’ game, particularly when there’s no one else around to defeat them.

Players with the will to bring Burma’s villainous regime to book aren’t to be found, so no “High Noon” confrontation between the good guys and the baddies can be realistically expected.

Burma’s potential heroes are locked up and out of action. They need to be rescued—as do the suffering 50 million people of Burma.

Regime apologists have the luxury of being able to defend the actions of the military government. That’s their right. But they can’t ignore the evidence of the regime’s crimes—the bloody suppression of all opposition to its iron rule.

The opposition—whether locked away or still free—needs to be cleverer, more organized and united in order to break political, social and economic barriers. They need a more pragmatic and strategic approach when it comes to playing with the villains.

Burma’s pro-democracy forces can’t deny that over the past 20 years they missed some windows of opportunity despite gaining legitimacy through the 1990 elections. Most of the opposition groups have been weakened by systematic attacks by the very villains they describe as “dumb.”

Whatever has happened in the past, the basic goal remains the same: to bring positive change to Burma and to create a country whose people can enjoy a better life. It doesn’t matter whether the strategy is to attack the villains or play their game—the current strategies are limited enough, reduced to a choice between sanctions and constructive engagement. In other words: punishment and incentive.

Each of those approaches has failed to bring about a dialogue between the junta and the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by detained pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi. Dialogue is undeniably the best and most peaceful way to reach a national reconciliation among the military leaders, opposition and ethnic leaders in the country, as a first step towards opening up opportunities to all citizens.

Until now, the world has been divided into two camps when it comes to how to deal with Burma—those who support sanctions and those who urge constructive engagement. Western countries led by the US have applied sanctions, while Burma’s neighbors, including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China and India, have favored engagement.

But things seem to be changing.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at a shift in Western thinking when she said during a recent Asia tour: “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta.”

But she also made clear that the alternative policy followed by Burma’s neighbors is also ineffective, adding: “Reaching out and trying to engage them [the Burmese generals] hasn’t influenced them, either.”

Clinton announced that the new US administration is reviewing its Burma policy—“because we want to see the best ideas about how to influence the Burmese regime.” It’s obvious, however, that US policy makers have no clear idea which idea is best.

Nevertheless, a departure from the policy that first applied sanctions against Burma in 1997 can be expected.

US President Barack Obama indicated a less confrontational approach to the world’s dictators when he said during his inaugural address in January: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

The question now is how to play this new game and what rules to follow. If a more realistic and proactive US policy towards Burma emerges from Washington, others—including China and Asean countries—will surely follow.

US policy could accommodate both sanctions and constructive engagement. It needs to be both flexible and firm.

As a first step, there are only two core political bargaining chips on the table—the release of all political prisoners and the removal of economic sanctions. The first is a key demand of pro-democracy forces, including Suu Kyi’s NLD, while the second is one of the junta main desires.

The two issues probably hold the key to unlocking the frustrating political status quo in Burma. President Obama and Clinton should make the two issues the focus of direct talks or “back channel” negotiations with the junta. The sooner the better.

To drive home the message that direct talks are required, the US administration needs its own special envoy to Burma. A succession of UN special envoys have achieved nothing.

Although former President George W Bush appointed Michael Green as his special Burma policy coordinator, President Obama has yet to nominate anyone for the job.

With a special envoy installed at the State Department, the US can get down to business, focusing on a basic quid pro quo: the release of all political prisoners for a lifting of economic sanctions. Playing the villains’ game will probably then open up the beginning of a new chapter for Burma.

This article appeared in the March-April issue of the Irrawaddy magazine.

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