NEW DELHI — Such is the tragedy that Burma symbolizes that, in one week, it has been hit by new U.S. sanctions and by a tropical cyclone that left thousands dead.
In a year in which Burma has completed 60 years as an independent nation, its junta is holding a national referendum on a new Constitution as part of a touted seven-step “road map to democracy.” With the military ensconced in power for 46 long years, few believe it will hand over power to civilians after promised elections in two years’ time.
U.S. President George W. Bush has not only denounced Saturday’s referendum as designed to cement the junta’s grip on power, but also slapped yet more sanctions. Widening sanctions, however, make it less likely that the seeds of democracy will take root in a stunted economy. External pressure without constructive engagement and civil-society development in a critically weak country, where the military is now the only functioning institution, is counterproductive.
Distance from Burma has been a crucial factor in determining major players’ approach toward that country. The greater a state’s geographical distance from Burma, the more ready for action it has been on Burma. And the shorter a state’s distance from Burma, the greater the caution and tact.
At one end of the spectrum is the United States, which has followed an uncompromisingly penal approach under President George W. Bush. At the other end are Asian states, emphasizing a softer approach. The European Union used to be somewhere in the middle, but by stepping up its own penal campaign since 2007, it has moved closer to the U.S. stance.
The West can afford to pursue, because Burma is so marginal to its foreign-policy interests, an approach emphasizing high-minded principles over strategic considerations, and isolation over engagement. It has little financial stake left in Burma. About 95 percent of Burma’s trade in fiscal 2007-08 was with other Asian countries. The West also doesn’t have to live with the consequences of its actions. Burma’s neighbors, however, will not escape the effects of an unstable Burma.
What role external actors can play in promoting a democratic transition is an issue not limited to Burma. Autocratic rule abounds in the world, including around Burma. International principles and policies deemed appropriate to help bring about democratic transition in Burma should ideally be such that they permit application in other settings.
The Burmese situation underscores at least nine international imperatives.
1. The need for a course correction. It is vital to carve out greater international space in Burma rather than shut whatever space that might be left. When an approach bristles with sticks and offers few carrots, results are hard to come by. The sanctions path has only strengthened the hand of the military.
An approach predicated on the primacy of sanctions may have been sustainable had Burma been a threat to regional or international security. The fact is that Burma does not export terror or subversion or revolutionary ideology. Its focus is inward.
2. Target the junta, not the people. The weight of the sanctions has fallen squarely on ordinary Burmese, while the military remains little affected. By boosting gas exports to Thailand (estimated at $1.2 billion during fiscal 2007-08) and signing a lucrative long-term gas deal with China this year, the junta has ensured continuing revenue inflows.
By targeting vital sectors of the Burmese economy — from tourism to textiles — sanctions have lowered the living conditions of the people without helping to improve human rights. What objective is served when disengagement blocks the flow of liberal ideas as well as investment and technology to improve working conditions?
3. Recognize that a “color revolution” is just not possible in Burma. Despite the temptation to portray the monk-led protests of last September as a “saffron revolt,” Burma is unlikely to experience a tumultuous political transformation of the type symbolized by Kyrgyzstan’s “tulip revolution,” Ukraine’s “orange revolution” and Georgia’s “rose revolution.” Burma, with its deep-seated institutional decay, is closer to Sudan and Ethiopia than to pre-1991 Eastern Europe.
4. Help build civil society in Burma. Years of sanctions have left Burma without an entrepreneurial class or civil society but saddled with an all-powerful military as the sole-surviving institution — to the extent that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party says the military will have an important role to play in any transitional government. With the bureaucracy in sharp decline, Burma today lacks a capable civil administrative machinery even to conduct free and fair elections.
5. The junta’s “road map to democracy,” however tentative and imperfect, offers an opening to incrementally pry open the Burmese system. The blunt fact is that since coming to power in 1962, the military has become too fat to return to the barracks. In fact, it won’t fit in the barracks. It has taken the junta more than 14 years just to draft a new Constitution that underlines the military’s primacy by reserving 25 percent of the seats in the federal and provincial legislatures for it.
With the military determined to retain political clout and important prerogatives, the demilitarization of the Burmese polity can at best be an incremental process. But if that process is not to stretch interminably, it is important for the international community and the United Nations to utilize the new opening, however constricted it might be, to get involved in capacity-building programs that can help increase public participation and create a civilian institutional framework for a democratic transition.
By putting the flawed Constitution to a vote, the military is implicitly creating a feeling of empowerment among the people. Similarly, however unintended, the message citizens will draw from the junta’s commitment to hold national elections in 2010 is that the government’s legitimacy depends on them.
The electoral process creates space for the democracy movement. After the Constitution is enacted, the junta will have to allow parties to organize and campaign. This may all seem a pretty small step, given the likely abuses, but which other entrenched autocracy is offering to empower its citizens to vote on a national Constitution or new government?
6. Shift the focus from negative conditionalities to positive conditionalities. To help create incentives for a democratic transition, Burma’s rulers should be given a set of benchmarks, with the meeting of each benchmark bringing positive rewards. Recent penal steps against Burma run counter to the junta’s gestures and concessions — such as facilitating U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s three visits in six months; permitting him to meet with Suu Kyi; allowing a special rapporteur to the U.N. Human Rights Council to come and investigate the September 2007 violence; and implementing the road map. In that light, the latest U.S., EU and Canadian sanctions suggest a lamentable lack of a strategic approach.
Which other autocracy allows a U.N. envoy or official to meet with a prominent jailed dissident or to probe acts of state repression? In Tibet, two months after the Tibetans rose in revolt against Chinese rule, Chinese crackdowns continue unabated. Not only has Beijing rebuffed all pleas to allow international observers into Tibet, but its security forces have sought to systematically erase evidence of the killings by burning bodies.
Gambari had sought a time-bound democratic transition plan, but after the junta unveiled just that, Burma has been repeatedly slapped with more sanctions, undermining the U.N.’s role.
7. Insist on ethnic reconciliation and accommodation. The struggle in Burma has been portrayed simplistically as a battle between Suu Kyi and the 74-year-old junta head, General Than Shwe; a fight between good and evil; and a clash between the forces of freedom and repression. A complex Burma is actually the scene of four different struggles.
One conflict rages within the majority Burman community between the mainly Burman military and democracy-seeking urban Burmans. Another struggle is between the military and the non-Burman nationalities, which make up nearly one-third of the population. An interreligious conflict also rages.
Then there is a larger unresolved struggle over the political meaning and direction of the Burmese state — whether Burma ought to be a true federation that grants wide-ranging provincial and local autonomy, or a unitary state.
8. Build greater coordination among democracies. By emphasizing differing means, major democracies have undercut the common objective they share to end nearly half a century of military rule in Burma. Such dissonance has not only come as a relief to the junta, but also allowed China to expand its influence and strategic interests in Burma.
9. Avert a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Burma. The widening sanctions have sought to throttle industries on which the livelihood of millions of Burmese depends. Import bans, investment prohibitions, tourism restrictions and measures forcing foreign companies to disengage from Burma have contributed to serious unemployment and poverty.
A year after then U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley warned in congressional testimony that many female garment workers made jobless by sanctions were being driven into prostitution, the State Department’s 2004 report boasted that U.S. actions had shut down more than 100 garment factories in the previous year alone, with “an estimated loss of around 50,000 to 60,000 jobs.”
Foreign investment and trade boost local employment and exert a liberalizing influence on the regime. A weaker Burma will only fall prey to and spawn a range of transnational security threats.
When the imperative is for a more balanced and forward-looking international approach, the danger of a self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions has been underlined by the new, ill-timed penal actions. Both carrots and sticks need to be wielded, but not in a way that the sticks get blunted through excess use and the carrots remain distant.
Principles need to be anchored in pragmatism. There is no logic to Burma being held to a higher international standard that the one applicable to other autocracies in its own neighborhood. If Burma was at least put on par, we are likely to strike more success there.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.