NEW YORK — The Obama administration’s decision to seek a new way forward in U.S.-Burma relations recognizes that decades of trying to isolate Burma (aka Myanmar) in order to change the behavior of its government have achieved little. As Burma’s ruling generals prepare to hold elections later this year — for the first time since 1990 — it is time to try something different.

Attempting to engage one of the world’s most authoritarian governments will not be easy. There is no evidence to indicate that Burma’s leaders will respond positively to the Obama administration’s central message, which calls for releasing the estimated 2,100 political prisoners (including Aung San Suu Kyi), engaging in genuine dialogue with the opposition, and allowing fair and inclusive elections.

In fact, the recently enacted electoral laws, which have been met with international condemnation, already point to a process that lacks credibility.

This past fall we convened a task force under the auspices of the Asia Society to consider how the United States can best pursue a path of engagement with Burma. We concluded that the U.S. must ensure that its policies do not inadvertently support or encourage authoritarian and corrupt elements in Burmese society.

At the same time, if the U.S. sets the bar too high at the outset, it will deny itself an effective role in helping to move Burma away from authoritarian rule and into the world community.

During this period of uncertainty, we recommend framing U.S. policy toward Burma on the basis of changes taking place in the country, using both engagement and sanctions to encourage reform. The Obama administration’s decision to maintain trade and investment sanctions on Burma in the absence of meaningful change, particularly with regard to the Burmese government’s intolerance of political opposition, is correct.

Yet there are other measures that should be pursued now. The U.S. should engage not only with Burma’s leaders, but also with a wide range of groups inside the country to encourage the dialogue necessary to bring about national reconciliation of the military, democracy groups, and non-Burmese nationalities.

Removal of some noneconomic sanctions that restrict official bilateral interaction is welcome, and an even greater relaxation in communications, through both official and unofficial channels, should be implemented. Expanding such channels, especially during a period of potential political change, will strengthen U.S. leverage.

To reach the Burmese people directly, the U.S. should continue to develop and scale up assistance programs, while preserving cross-border assistance. Assistance to nongovernmental organizations should be expanded, and U.S. assistance also should be targeted toward small farmers and small- and medium-size businesses.

Educational exchanges under the Fulbright and Humphrey Scholar programs and cultural outreach activities should be increased. These programs produce powerful agents for community development in Burma, and can significantly improve the prospects for better governance.

U.S. policy should shift to a more robust phase if Burmese leaders begin to relax political restrictions, institute economic reforms and advance human rights. If there is no movement on these fronts, there will likely be pressure in the U.S. for tightening sanctions.

If there is no recourse but to pursue stronger sanctions, the U.S. should coordinate with others, including the European Union and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to impose targeted financial and banking measures to ensure that military leaders and their associates cannot evade the impact of what otherwise would be less-effective unilateral sanctions.

If a different scenario emerges, it should open the way for a much more active U.S. role in assisting with capacity building, governance training and international efforts to encourage economic reforms.

One priority should be to develop an appropriate mechanism for ensuring that revenues from the sale of natural gas are properly accounted for, repatriated and allocated to meet urgent national needs.

In adjusting its policy toward Burma, the U.S. must face reality with a clear vision of what its foreign policy can achieve. U.S. influence in Burma is unlikely to outweigh that of increasingly powerful Asian neighbors. Therefore, the U.S. should make collaboration with other key stakeholders, particularly ASEAN, the United Nations and Burma’s neighbors — including China, India and Japan — the centerpiece of its policy.

In every respect, conditions in Burma are among the direst of any country in the world, and it will take decades, if not generations, to reverse current downward trends and create a foundation for a sustainable and viable democratic government and a prosperous society.

The U.S. needs to position itself to respond effectively and flexibly to the twists and turns that a potential transition in Burma may take over time, with an eye toward pressing the Burmese leadership to move in positive directions.

Wesley K. Clark, a former NATO supreme commander, is a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations. Henrietta H. Fore is a former administrator of USAID. Both are cochairs of the Asia Society-sponsored Task Force on U.S. Policy toward Burma/Myanmar. Suzanne DiMaggio, director of Policy Studies at the Asia Society, is project director. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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