Thursday, August 27, 2009

No Turning Back

The Irrawaddy News

It’s no secret that the regime in Burma wants to repair its frosty relationship with America. It would especially like to see the lifting of US sanctions, which have an impact not only on the general population, but are also hampering the junta leaders’ ambition to build a modern armed forces.

Historically, there is little reason for the two countries to regard each other as enemies. Despite the US-backed occupation of northern Shan State by the Chinese Kuomintang in the 1950s, Burmese military commanders have never felt the same hostility toward the US that they reserve for Burma’s former colonial masters, the British.

Burma’s current rulers have not forgotten that their predecessor, Gen Ne Win, was a guest in the White House just a few years after seizing power. At the time, the US was keen to get a foothold in a country on China’s doorstep. Ironically, when Ne Win killed unarmed students in 1970s, it was Beijing, not Washington, that expressed outrage.

Fearing Communist China’s growing influence in the region, the US had no qualms about forming close military ties with Burma. For decades, top officers in the Burmese armed forces attended West Point and the Command and General Staff College, while key members of Burma’s most feared spy agency were trained by the CIA.

Washington was also generous with its military hardware. Until the late 1980s, Burma’s army and air force employed US jet fighters, helicopters and M-16 assault rifles. Bell helicopters supplied by the US to help Burma wage a war on drugs were also used in operations against ethnic insurgents. And when Burmese riot police fired on students in 1988, they were armed with American-made M-16s.

But it was at this point that US-Burma relations rapidly deteriorated. After decades of ignoring Burma’s poor human rights record and political repression, Washington suddenly became a staunch champion of the country’s brutally suppressed pro-democracy movement and an outspoken critic of the junta that seized power in 1988.

Now, after two decades of treating Burma’s rulers like pariahs, Washington is reviewing its policy toward the country as part of President Barack Obama’s new, less confrontational approach to dealing with the world’s dictators. Even as he tells “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that they are “on the wrong side of history,” Obama says that he is ready to offer his hand to those who are “willing to unclench their fist.”

The Burmese generals were quick to read this as a sign that the US was likely to soften its stance toward them, and were only too happy to share Obama’s conciliatory message with the people of Burma in state-run media—except for the part about the need for dictators to “unclench their fist” if they want to enjoy better relations with the US, which was deemed too “sensitive” by the junta’s censors.

In August, the generals finally got their chance to show the world that they, too, were ready to extend their hand in friendship. The highly publicized visit of US Sen Jim Webb was lauded in the state-run press as “a success for both sides as well as the first step to promotion of the relations between the two countries.”

A commentary in The New Light of Myanmar, a regime mouthpiece, noted that Webb did not act like a typical “neocolonialist” or “loud-mouthed bully.” However, it cautiously added that Webb’s visit was just “the first step toward marching to a 1,000-mile destination.”

What was most remarkable about this encounter was how starkly Webb’s reception contrasted with that of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who traveled to Naypyidaw in June but was denied a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The difference signaled the junta’s eagerness to cut a deal with Washington.

The immediate outcome of Webb’s visit was the release of John Yettaw, the American who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally entering Suu Kyi’s residential compound in May. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi and her two live-in aides are now serving a further 18 months under house arrest because of Yettaw’s actions.

To the junta’s way of thinking, all of this makes perfectly good sense. Just as Suu Kyi’s trial and conviction were obviously politically motivated, Yettaw’s release was clearly a political gambit intended to improve the regime’s chances of repairing ties with the US.

But the regime is going to have to go a lot further if it expects the Obama administration to meet it halfway. Following Webb’s visit, the White House issued a statement welcoming the junta’s gesture, but also urging “the Burmese leadership in this spirit to release all the political prisoners it is holding in detention or in house arrest, including Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Clearly, then, Webb’s visit was not the breakthrough that he and other champions of engagement with the regime hoped it would be. If Burma’s rulers think they can simply return to the “good old days” when Washington didn’t care how dictators behaved, as long as they were friendly to America’s interests, they are mistaken. Until it makes real changes in its behavior, the junta’s dream of rapprochement with the US will remain a “1,000-mile destination.”

[This article appears in September issue of The Irrawaddy.]

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