Monday, October 5, 2009

Regional implications of US policy on Burma

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation (Thailand)

The carefully crafted 490-word US policy on Burma is aimed at all players in the region and afar, directly and indirectly, involved in the Burmese quagmire. Coming as it did at this juncture, the policy will be used as a new benchmark to gauge Rangoon's genuine desire for dialogue and openness. It also seeks to rejuvenate international engagement with regional dynamics. This represents another much-needed effort to break the current impasse that the regime can take after Australia made the first attempt—with a long list of demands-at the 1994 Asean ministerial meeting in Bangkok.

Washington realises now that the new approach is likely to be "slow and incremental." In other words, it will be a step by step process. This time a more concerted international effort is required to ease the Burmese crisis after decades of sanctions. The Obama Administration should be lauded for seizing this unique opportunity to formulate a new policy that some regional players can identify with.

The US softer approach has short and long-term objectives. In the next 15 months, pressure on Burma would be a step up building on existing progress accomplished since August including increased US-Burmese high-level meetings and dialogues, as well as ongoing communications between General Than Shwe and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi on ways to loosen up sanctions. After the US completed its policy reviews, Suu Kyi reiterated her readiness again to help end sanctions against the regime, which she first outlined two and half years ago.

Washington also wants to lay groundwork for inclusive, free and fair elections next year in Burma. Judging from the tone of US senior officials, any positive response from the junta on Suu Kyi's unconditional release or electoral process in coming weeks or months would immediately help to build up mutual confidence and widen the communication channels between the two capitals. Cooperation on counter-narcotics, health, environmental protection, and the recovery of World War II-era missing-in-action (MIAs) could be new incentives.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell made clear that lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on the US concerns would be a mistake. "We will maintain our existing sanctions until we see concrete progress, and continue to work with the international community to ensure that those sanctions are effectively coordinated," he told a Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs last week.

In the medium and long term, the US policy seeks to break up the twin influence of China and India over Burma. In the policy statement, the US says it will continue to cooperate and coordinate closely with the UN, Asean, the EU, China, Japan, India, Australia, the Burmese opposition and others. In reality, the US targets China and India—the two key players which have propped up and strengthened the military junta. The US new positions are more or less closer to those held by key players which prefer more contact,with sanctions still intact, or backing easing of sanctions with more humanitarian assistance.

Since Cyclone Nargis, the EU has picked humanitarian options for the Burmese people albeit growing criticism that it would benefit the regime. For decades, Japan has limited its assistance aid to humanitarian and human resource development, especially in economic planning. Australia also tried without much success to increase awareness on human rights and democracy inside Burma.

With the US new policy, Asean will find it easier to work with the US on Burma—a new element under the Obama administration and Asean. Asean opposes sanctions against Burma, since it was admitted into the grouping in 1997. Apart from sharing common objectives of seeing a united, prosperous and democratic country, now the two sides are moving closer on sanctions. Asean argues sanctions must stop as it hurts the Burmese people.

Ironically, the Asean-US closer cooperation on Burma effectively put an end to the Aseanisation process of Burmese conundrums that began in earnest in Luxembourg in 1991, fuelling the longstanding feud between EU and Asean over Burma. Even before the country joined the grouping, Asean leaders believed they could handle the Burmese issue better than the outsiders through peer pressure and the Asean way. The polarisation reached its peak in 1997 when Burma was admitted to Asean with strong support from former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad and Indonesian ex-President Suharto.

The US-led "internationalisation" process could overtake the Asean-initiated or even the UN framework, if Burma responds positively to Washington's overtures in a timely manner. In that case, Rangoon has lots of explaining to do for its Asean colleagues and international community. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya's decision to give up the joint Asean appeal on Suu Kyi's freedom, citing the existing international efforts, confirmed this inevitable trend. Like it or not, Asean future positions on Burma would have to take in broad-based international sentiments.

The first US-Asean summit in Singapore, scheduled on November 15, will include Burmese Prime Minister Thien Sein. It was no longer a taboo for the leaders of US and Burma to meet. The summit—whether it is institutionalised-would further deepen the US role played in regional issues. With its Asean ambassador in residence in Jakarta (the first in Asean) to be announced soon, Washington will also have a senior official follow up on this issue with the Asean Secretariat. Later this month, at the Asean summit in Cha-am, Asean expects to see more positive signs from Burma related to the electoral process and relations with the opposition partners.

Closer to home, the US policy will impact on the porous Thai-Burma border. Issues related to attacks on minorities, drugs and human smuggling would be placed high on the US watch lists. More than before, both Thailand and Malaysia—not to mention China over the Kokang conflict- have all suffered from the influx of Burmese refugees.

Recent attacks on minorities along the Thai border by the Burmese troops again displaced thousands of minorities inside the Thai territory.

In years ahead, the US policy serves to enhance Thailand's position vis-a-vis Burma over its nuclear ambition. US senior officials have reiterated the UN Security Council's resolution 1874 (as well as 1718 during testimonies) which deals with nuclear proliferation as part of the Burmese policy gist. Washington has been very concerned about the nature and extent of Burma's nuclear ties with North Korea. During recent testimony, Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana continued to question Burma's motives in dispatching hundreds of its officials to Russia for nuclear technology training. He pointed out the number of persons travelling to Russia for specialised training seemed to be far beyond the number needed for the eventual operation of a nuclear reactor for medical research purposes, intended to be built by the junta with Russian government assistance Thailand has yet to treat with seriousness this explosive issue.

Except for selective army intelligence officials working closely with Australian and American counterparts, the rest of Thai society has been kept in the dark on Burma's nuclearisation program and its implications on the country's future security. The Thai policy makers, in particular the National Security Council, tend to view Burma's quagmire and security concerns through myopic bilateral prisms, which immediately mitigate any serious strategic evaluation of potential nuclear threats to Thailand.

Burma Newscasts - Regional implications of US policy on Burma
5 Oct 2009

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