I’ve posted a good bit about Burma since starting to blog almost four years ago, but I’ve been hesitant to post much now because I feel we are all little more than drive-by rubberneckers, turning our heads toward Burma just long enough to catch a glimpse of yet another passing segment in the endless video of disaster news that no one can really do much about—apart from finding a way to pin the blame on one’s favorite ideological demons, of course. Every disaster is good for blind partisans.
But a current article in Foreign Affairs seems to offer a useful retrospective on two opposing diplomatic dead-ends. Both engagement by its neighbors and isolation by more distant but powerful forces seem to have failed.
U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck. Since September 1988, the country has been run by a corrupt and repressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). Soon after taking power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta was then called, placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy, under house arrest. In 1990, it allowed national elections but then ignored the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory and clung to power. Then, in the mid-1990s, amid a cresting wave of post-Cold War democratization and in response to international pressure, the SLORC released Suu Kyi. At the time, there was a sense within the country and abroad that change in Burma might be possible.
But this proved to be a false promise, and the international community could not agree on what to do next. Many Western governments, legislatures, and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions. Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SLORC to reform. The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. The United States limited its diplomatic contact with the SLORC and eventually imposed mandatory trade and investment restrictions on the regime. Europe became a vocal advocate for political reform. But most Asian states moved to expand trade, aid, and diplomatic engagement with the junta, most notably by granting Burma full membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.
A decade later, the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle….
If ASEAN and Japan are critical components of any international approach to Burma, China and India could be the greatest obstacles to efforts to induce reform in the country. China has many interests in Burma. Over the past 15 years, it has developed deep political and economic relations with Burma, largely through billions of dollars in trade and investment and more than a billion dollars’ worth of weapons sales. It enjoys important military benefits, including access to ports and listening posts, which allow its armed forces to monitor naval and other military activities around the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. To feed its insatiable appetite for energy, it also seeks preferential deals for access to Burma’s oil and gas reserves….
It will also be a challenge getting India on board. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trumpeting of democratic values, India has actually become more reticent when it comes to Burma in recent years. This is particularly regrettable considering that Congress was one of the Burmese democratic opposition’s strongest supporters during much of the 1990s and that Suu Kyi continues to cite Mohandas Gandhi as a model for nonviolent resistance. The change occurred during the past decade, after New Delhi detected that China’s political and military influence in Burma was filling the void left by the international community’s deliberate isolation of the junta. Like China, India is hungry for natural gas and other resources and is eager to build a road network through Burma that would expand its trade with ASEAN. As a result, it has attempted to match China step for step as an economic and military partner of the SPDC, providing tanks, light artillery, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, and small arms; India is now Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner. Singh’s government has also fallen for the junta’s blackmail over cross-border drug and arms trafficking and has preferred to give it military and economic assistance rather than let Burma become a safe haven for insurgents active in India’s troubled northeastern region….
Given the differing perspectives and interests of these nations, a new multilateral initiative on Burma cannot be based on a single, uniform approach. Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy. To succeed, the region’s major players will need to work together.
Fat chance of that happening, I’m afraid.
As a gesture of mourning for the lives being sacrificed to ‘keep the peace’, I’ll retain one header image for the rest of the week. It’s a stupa-style memorial dedicated to Japanese war dead in Burma, which I came across in the massive Okunoin cemetery at Kōya-san, one of Japanese Buddhism’s holiest sites.