U.S. should engage Burma

by Brahma Chellaney

By rendering its sanctions instrument blunt through overuse, Washington has dissipated its leverage against Burma, North Korea and Iran, and run out of viable options. The Obama administration, therefore, has wisely sought to open lines of communication with these countries and review policy options.

The humanitarian imperative to help free jailed Americans in North Korea, Burma and Iran provided the impetus to this political undertaking. The individuals’ dangerous exploits came as a blessing in disguise for U.S. diplomacy, presenting an opportunity to try and open the door to engagement while providing the humanitarian shield to deflect attacks by hardline critics at home.

Just this month, even as the White House kept up the pretense that these were “private, humanitarian missions unlinked to U.S. policies,” the United States was able to open lines of communication with North Korea and Burma, with ex-President Bill Clinton’s trip to Pyongyang winning the release of two American journalists and Sen. James Webb’s lower profile mission to Burma securing the release of an American who illegally visited Aung San Suu Kyi.

A formal U.S. opening to Iran, however, will have to await the outcome of the current power struggle there.

U.S. policy increasingly has pushed Burma into China’s strategic lap through an uncompromisingly penal approach since the mid-1990s — to the extent that the Bush administration began turning to Beijing as a channel of communication with the junta, even though the U.S. has maintained non-ambassadorial diplomatic relations with Burma, unlike with Iran and North Korea. A policy that has the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s, clearly, demands a reappraisal.

The weight of the U.S.-led sanctions has fallen squarely on the ordinary Burmese, while the military remains largely unaffected. The sanctions-only approach indeed has made it less likely that the seeds of democracy will sprout in a stunted economy.

The U.S. also cannot forget that democratization of an autocratic state is a challenge that extends beyond Burma. Democracy promotion thus should not become a geopolitical tool wielded only against the weak and the marginalized.

Can one principle be applied to the world’s largest autocracy, China — that engagement is the way to bring about political change — but an opposite principle centered on sanctions remain in force against impoverished Burma? Going after the small kids on the global block but courting the most-powerful autocrats is hardly the way to build international norms.

Against this background, the Obama administration is doing the right thing by exploring the prospect of a gradual U.S. engagement with Burma, with American diplomats holding two separate meetings with the Burmese foreign minister in recent months. Webb’s Burma mission was a big boost in that direction.

Webb, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, held separate face-to-face discussions with the junta’s top leader, Gen. Than Shwe, and Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein. He also was allowed to meet Suu Kyi, just weeks after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had been denied such a meeting.

In fact, after Suu Kyi was convicted of violating the terms of her house detention by sheltering the American intruder, the junta instantly commuted her sentence to allow her to return to her villa and not spend time in a jail. If Suu Kyi were to reverse her decision to boycott next year’s national elections, the generals might even be willing to lift her house detention. In any case, Suu Kyi remains free to leave the country, but on a one-way ticket.

The elections are unlikely to be free and fair. But make no mistake: By agreeing to hold the polls, the military is implicitly creating a feeling of empowerment among the people. However unintended, the message citizens will draw is that the next government’s legitimacy depends on them. Which other entrenched autocracy in the world is offering to empower its citizens to vote on a new government?

The electoral process creates space for the Burmese democracy movement. The regime will have to allow political parties to campaign and take their message to the people. That, in turn, will allow the parties to galvanize support for democratic transition. Getting a foot in is necessary before the door to political change can be forced open.

That is why many parties representing the large ethnic minorities have decided to participate in the elections, even though the polls will be fought on the skewed terms set by the military. If Suu Kyi stays out, she and the aging leadership of her party, the National League for Democracy, will miss an important opportunity for the democracy movement to assert itself under the military’s own rules.

Just the way Washington today is reassessing its hard line toward Burma, India was compelled to shift course after a decade of foreign-policy activism from the late 1980s — but not before paying dearly. In the period New Delhi broke off all contact with the junta and became a hub of Burmese dissident activity, China strategically penetrated Burma, opening a new flank against India. That period’s sobering lessons have helped instill greater geopolitical realism in Indian policy. While still seeking political reconciliation and democratic transition in Burma, New Delhi now espouses constructive engagement with the junta.

After all, years of sanctions have left Burma bereft of an entrepreneurial class but saddled with the military as the only functioning institution. That means a “color revolution” is unlikely and that democratic transition will be a painfully incremental process.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.