Let trade transform Burma

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — The election process in Burma has altered its political landscape, giving birth to new institutions and players, triggering a generational change in the armed forces, bringing to power the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and facilitating the release of prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from seven years of isolation in her lakeside villa in Rangoon.

In addition to the emergence of a bicameral national Parliament, 14 regional parliaments, a president and a civilian federal government, the country has a new flag, a new national anthem, a new capital and a new official name, with the “Union of Myanmar” tag giving way to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

While several ethnic-minority parties have done well, especially the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the election results have confirmed that the military will continue to rule through its proxy, USDP, led by Prime Minister U Thein Sein.

This is no surprise: After being in power for more than 48 years, the military has become too fat to return to the barracks. In fact, it won’t fit in the barracks. Still, the holding of the election has forced the armed forces to assume a civilian mask, a process that has witnessed the elevation of younger military officers to replace those who resigned to run for legislative seats.

At 65, Aung San Suu Kyi faces a difficult situation, with her party disbanded, the opposition splintered and the military’s grip on power as firm as ever. To compound matters, there are deep divisions among her followers over whether to confront the country’s rulers or emulate the example of Nelson Mandela who negotiated with South Africa’s then apartheid regime.

A breakaway faction of her party took part in the elections, but did not fare well. With no hope of a “color revolution” in Burma, demilitarization of the polity can at best be a step-by-step process. While the revived political process has created some space for the democracy movement, Suu Kyi cannot hope to bring about tangible democratic reforms without co-opting influential elements within the armed forces.

With Burma now in transition, the United States and its European partners must moderate their sanctions policy to influence developments within and create incentives for greater political openness. Indeed, there is no reason why a weak, impoverished Burma should continue to be held to a higher human rights standard than an increasingly assertive China.

Why deny Burma the international-trade opportunities that have allowed the world’s biggest executioner, China, to prosper?

The defining events that led to the crushing of prodemocracy forces in Burma and China actually occurred around the same time more than two decades ago, yet the West responded to the developments in the two countries in very different ways. China’s spectacular economic rise owes a lot to the Western decision not to sustain trade sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of prodemocracy protesters. That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite decision in favor of sustained sanctions against Burma, which brutally suppressed prodemocracy demonstrators 10 months before Tiananmen Square and later refused to honor the outcome of a national election in 1990.

Had the Burma-type approach (centered on escalating sanctions) been applied against China internationally, the result would have been a less prosperous and a potentially destabilizing China today.

By contrast, the continuation of sanctions and their subsequent expansion against Burma snuffed out any prospect of that country emulating China’s example of blending economic openness with political authoritarianism. Indeed, the military’s exploratory efforts to open up the Burmese economy in the early 1990s fizzled out quickly in the face of Western penal actions.

The sanctions policy now needs to be recalibrated by drawing on the lessons of the past two decades. The first lesson is that the economic sanctions, even if justified, have produced the wrong political results. Years of sanctions have left Burma without an entrepreneurial class or civil society but saddled with an all-powerful military as the sole functioning institution.

A second lesson is that the expansion of sanctions has not only further isolated Burma, but also made that country overly dependent on China, to the concern of the nationalistic Burmese military.

At a time when the U.S. is courting Communist-ruled Vietnam as part of its “hedge” strategy against a resurgent China, it makes little sense to continue with an approach that is pushing a strategically located Burma into China’s lap.

Yet another lesson is that the sanctions have hurt not their intended target — the military. By cutting off investment and squeezing vital sectors of the Burmese economy — from tourism to textiles — the sanctions have lowered the living conditions of ordinary Burmese and shut out liberalizing influences.

Now is the time, with Burma in some flux, for the U.S. and its allies to get out of a self-perpetuating cycle of sanctions and help carve out greater international space in Burma in the hope of building a civilian institutional framework for a democratic transition. Each step toward greater political openness in Burma, including Suu Kyi’s release, ought to be suitably rewarded.

More broadly, democracy promotion should not become a geopolitical tool wielded only against the weak and the marginalized. Going after the small kids on the global block but courting the most-powerful autocrats is hardly the way to build international norms or ensure positive results.

As the Nobel Committee bluntly pointed out while awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, “China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights.”

U.S. President Barack Obama began on the right note by exploring the prospect of a gradual U.S. re-engagement with Burma, with his envoys meeting with the Burmese foreign minister and other officials. Yet on his recent India visit, Obama attacked Burma three times, reflecting his frustration with the painfully slow movement to create a real democratic opening in that nation.

U.S. and European policy must recognize that the seeds of democracy will not take root in a stunted economy. Trade is likely to prove more effective than sanctions.

Encouraging Western investment, trade and tourism will help undercut Chinese influence and aid civil-society development in a critically weak country.

Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins USA).