Monday, July 27, 2009

Clinton’s myopia on Burma

by Enzo Reale

(Mizzima- Opinion) - Did you think they had a "policy"? Think again.

Since her first trip to Asia, last February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been busy advertising the "new approach" to the region promoted by the Obama administration. Especially, regarding Burma, she announced a "policy review" in the months to come: "Clearly, sanctions haven't worked", she said, adding that engagement by the neighbouring countries also failed to bring change to the isolated nation.

Officially the "policy review" is still on and, apart from some vague statements from Clinton's aides, nobody at the moment can spell out its contents and its real purpose. But last week, at a press conference on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Phuket, Secretary of State came up with quite a surprising proposal to Burmese rulers: "If she [Suu Kyi] were released, that would open up opportunities, at least for my country, to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma. But it is up to the Burmese leadership", Clinton said. In other words: ‘if you give me Aung San Suu Kyi, I'll give you money’. Unfortunately this isn't a policy, it's a gamble.

The attempt to buy Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom by the promise of new investments shows an amount of improvisation and naivety that should worry activists for democracy inside and outside Burma and, in general, all those who have always looked at U.S. as a force for democratic change in authoritarian countries. Instead of working to free Burma and its citizens, Mrs. Clinton chooses to concentrate U.S. efforts in pursuing a symbolic, popular and limited goal, the liberation of the Nobel Prize laureate. "What about reconciliation dialogue, the election in 2010 and ethnic issues? Don’t they know that they would detain her again?" veteran journalist and opposition leader Win Tin observed, when asked about Mrs. Clinton's remarks. But we could add: what about the other 2000 political prisoners? What about internally displaced people? What about forced and child labour? What about recruitment of children in the Army? What about refugees? What about the climate of intimidation and fear? What about Burma?

The Secretary of State's words are misconceived for many reasons. They can be interpreted as if the reality of misery and oppression of 55 million people could be reduced to the fate of a single, though important, democratic icon. If she could speak, I am sure Aung Sang Suu Kyi would reject this bargaining: she considers her freedom instrumental to the liberation of the Burmese people and not vice versa.

Moreover, Mrs. Clinton clearly underestimates the significance that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) attach to her detention. Senior General Than Shwe and his clique have always considered political prisoners a necessary tool for the survival of the regime in the present shape. They use them to threaten the population, to debilitate the opposition, to buy time with the international community, according to circumstances. They're not going to risk their political future by simply freeing Aung San Suu Kyi as a part of an undefined cooperation agreement.

Finally, the proposal underlines the weakness (or the nonexistence) of an American strategy about Burma. After Mrs. Clinton’s remarks the generals know better than ever that the U.S. government has no idea on how to deal with them. There's no plan, just a game of courtship and rejection, of carrot and stick they’re probably enjoying. Actually, it looks like the only tangible U.S. policy under Obama is the cohabitation with authoritarian regimes, in Asia and elsewhere: “normalization” is the keyword. For a further example, take the essence of Mrs. Clinton’s speech about North Korea: in exchange for giving up its nuclear ambitions, she promised Pyongyang “full normalisation of relations, a permanent peace regime and significant energy and economic assistance in the context of full and verifiable denuclearisation”.

In the past year the Burmese government has been able to shift the focus from its chronic mismanagement of the country’s resources to economic sanctions imposed by Western countries. A fundamental help in this rough manipulation has come from anti-sanctions and pro-engagement groups, mainly outside Burma. Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, well settled in his usual equidistance between dictatorship and the democratic camp, is a champion of this “development first” narrative. In its last edition, also The Economist seems to embrace the theory that blames the critical situation in Burma on the obstinacy of Western powers and on the same Aung San Suu Kyi for pursuing a policy of criticism and sanctions aimed at promoting democratic change, instead of engaging the regime with development aid and investments: “Worse, everyone from the UN down views Myanmar through the lens of democracy above all else—even development.

For a desperate country with shocking rates of disease and mortality such a priority is dubious, at best, shameful at worst”, an editorial observes. According to this school of thought, Burma’s destiny would depend in the first place on foreign countries will to abandon their isolation policy, as if the paranoid military government that has ruled the country with an iron fist for 47 years had little or nothing to do with its decay.

Of course, development and aid are essential tools in such a dramatic context. But it’s a big mistake to consider development and democracy as alternative options.

Before 1997 no Western sanctions against Burma were in place, at least not in the present form and extent. What kind of development did Burmese citizens enjoy? The sad answer is… more wealth in the strongboxes of Burma's tyrants. Today Naypyidaw is busily trading with its neighbours, mainly China, India, Thailand and Singapore: why aren’t they developing the country and improving people’s lives?

A slippery ground, isn’t it? While the debate about this subject is welcome, we should not forget that the main sanction against Burma is the military regime itself. For that reason, democracy and development are intimately connected and it’s impossible to promote any sort of real development if the national robbery managed by a ruthless and illegitimate government is going to continue. The only treatment for Burma’s illness is the end of dictatorship, not more money (Western money, again?) in the pockets of the generals.

So, Mrs. Clinton, free Burma and you will also free Aung San Suu Kyi.

Enzo Reale is a freelance journalist. He writes about South-East Asia issues for Italian online newspapers and magazines. He edits two blogs ( and

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