Friday, August 28, 2009

New US policy is important for Burma's future

By Khin Maung Win - Oslo

(The Nation) -The visit by US Senator Jim Webb to Burma, in which he won the release of John William Yettaw, who was sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment with hard labour for swimming across Inya lake to the home of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, draws scepticism from some stakeholders in Burmese politics.

Since the administration of President Obama stated that its Burma policy is under review, those in the camp who supported the previous US sanctions policy are concerned about the direction of the prospective new policy.

The major concern is that the policy shift would change the equation between the regime and its opponents by favouring Burma's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and would legitimise the regime and its controversial 2010 election. As of now the election is a critical battlefield on which the fight between the SPDC and the opposition groups will be played out.

It is a fact that both engagement policies advocated by Asean, Burma's neighbours and other Asian nations, and the sanctions and isolation policy held by the US and EU have equally failed to bring any positive change in Burma. Looking for an alternative becomes a natural reality.

Previous attempts by the US to use its power via the UN Security Council have never been realised due to vetoes from China and Russia. These two countries also intervened when the US, along with the UK and France, tried to practise "Responsibility to Protect" to save the victims of Cyclone Nargis that hit Burma in May 2008, leaving 135,000 dead and over two million homeless while the Burmese regime denied immediate humanitarian aid from outside. The US must find an alternative policy so that it can exercise its power to help 55 million Burmese people.

The US is the power the SPDC despises most, but at the same time, will listen to most if it has to. Some suggest that Senator Webb's success in meeting with Senior General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi is a result of mounting international pressure, which the regime wants to defuse following Aung San Suu Kyi's sentencing on August 11.

While the US needs to send a former president, Bill Clinton, to North Korea to secure the freedom of two Americans and to meet reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, it was politically cheaper for it to send only a senator to secure the freedom of Yettaw and meet Burma's reclusive leader. It indicates that the Burmese regime will listen to the US when it has to, even though unwillingly.

But the US cannot unilaterally exercise its power. Bringing more nations on board, along with a new policy, whilst remaining in the driving seat, would make a difference.

Some suggest the Obama administration is sending a mixed message to the regime, with the US president's recent renewal of Burma sanctions contradicting calls from some senior US officials for "affirmative engagement". Should we not see the renewal as a signal from the US that sanctions remain a possible punishment, whereas the doorway has been opened for engagement? Should it be understood as a "carrot and stick" policy which offers engagement in the first place and punishment later? This is not a new approach in dealing with Burma. Australia, for example, in the early 1990s advocated a similar concept using the name of "Benchmark Policy".

The division among the international players has allowed the regime's survival over the last two decades. Once the US develops a new policy, it must be able to bring more nations on board from both camps - those advocating engagement and those advocating sanctions and isolation.

The carrot and stick approach, offering engagement and sanctions, with proper use of both in a balanced manner, could be a bridge to bring both camps closer. It means that the new US policy must be multilateral, not unilateral.

Some Asian countries, including Asean members, India and China, may have prioritised their own interests when engaging with the regime. They are also major trading partners of the regime, and some supply weapons. A few may even wish that Burma never becomes a democracy. Some democracies, namely India and Japan, compromise universally-accepted values that are in practise in their countries, just for national interest - by giving in too much to the SPDC. This shows that countries in the engagement camp have less interest in changing Burma's status quo. Unlike these nations, the US is freer from any conflict of interest when it comes to Burma policy, whether using sanctions or engagement. It mainly sticks to the idea of sympathy for 55 million Burmese suffering under repressive military rulers for half a century.

Its democratic structure at home is unlikely to allow the US to compromise its values of human rights, freedom, justice, multi-party democracy and market economy when it comes to Burma policy. Planting such universally-accepted values in Burma can only be good.

Sympathy for the Burmese people, within the White House, State Department and both houses of Congress, as well as strong Burma advocacy groups in the country, could reduce the risk of a new US policy becoming another failed engagement.

The regime is not afraid to insult any international organisation, including Asean, the EU and UN. A recent example of how the regime blatantly fouled the international community was during UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's trip to Burma in early July. Most people assumed that pre-arrangements for his visit included securing the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi, or at least meeting with her. The regime easily snubbed the secretary-general by denying him a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the regime knows that it is difficult for it to insult the US the same way. Of course, it is up to the US to determine whether it will allow itself to be insulted.

Khin Maung Win is deputy executive director of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a Burmese radio and TV station based in Oslo. The views expressed in the article are his own.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too