by Aung Zaw / Friday, September 25, 2009
If the United States believes engaging the repressive regime in Burma will change the behavior of the generals, I would just like to say, “Good luck, but I’m afraid that leopards don’t change their spots!”
In fact, the “new” US policy on Burma comes not so long after the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act 2008, the US’s attempt at a strong-arm policy on the generals.
The 2008 act has three aims: to impose new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the leaders of the junta and their associates; to tighten the economic sanctions imposed in 2003 by outlawing the importation of Burmese gems to the US; and to create a new position of special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.
The proposed US special envoy would have the task of working with Burma’s neighbors and other interested countries, such as those within the EU and Asean.
The envoy’s mission would also involve developing a comprehensive approach to the Burma crisis, including pressure, dialogue and support for nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian relief to the Burmese people.
It remains to be seen if the Obama administration is going to appoint the special US envoy to Burma anytime in the near future.
Burmese dissidents and observers by and large think that the generals in Naypyidaw may be more receptive to a US envoy than someone from the UN or EU—after all, we all witnessed how generously Snr-Gen Than Shwe treated US Senator Jim Webb in August.
In any case, the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act was a mixture of sanctions and engagement. Unsurprisingly, the new US policy on Burma is a mixed bag of sticks and carrots.
In her most recent statement, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion.
“Going forward we will be employing both of those tools,” Clinton said, but added that lifting sanctions would send the wrong signal.
On the surface, the substance of the policy is to encourage credible, democratic reforms and the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and serious dialogue with opposition and ethnic minority groups.
Speaking on behalf of detained democracy leader Suu Kyi, party spokesman Nyan Win said that she accepted the concept of engagement by the new US administration.
In fact, the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s message to the US is clear and well-calculated.
“She said she has always espoused engagement,” Nyan Win said. “However, [she] suggested that engagement has to be done with both sides—the government as well as the democratic forces.”
The statement forces the US to ponder whether it can be seen to betray or abandon the pro-democracy camp in Burma and the issue of human rights.
In any case, several pundits and scholars have voiced their opinions on the “new US policy”; however, I think it is important to listen to Burmese who continue to live under the regime.
I believe the main skeptics of the new US policy are the oppressed Burmese citizens, and political dissidents and Buddhist monks who remain in prison.
On the international front, the generals’ powerful allies China, India and Russia will be carefully eyeing the US’s new approach.
I believe an extra dimension to the Obama government’s new engagement policy is the issue of China.
China remains the junta’s major arms supplier and trading partner. It offers security guarantees at the United Nations Security Council, investment and trade links, as well as development assistance.
However, Beijing was displeased by the instability on its border when the Burmese government forces attacked ethnic Chinese and the Kokang ethnic rebel group recently.
China’s repeated requests to solve the issue peacefully went ignored. Beijing must have seen this as a breach of their fraternal relationship and time to reassess its own Burma policy.
In a rare move by China, the foreign ministry spoke out urging Burma to “properly handle domestic problems and maintain stability in the China-Burma border region” and to “protect the security and legal rights” of China’s citizens in the country.
“The insular and nationalistic generals do not take orders from anyone, including Beijing,” said Robert Templer, International Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.
Regarding China-Burma relations, Templer warned: “By continuing to simply expect China to take the lead in solving the problem, a workable international approach to Myanmar [Burma] will remain elusive.”
The ICG also said that the West should emphasize to China the unsustainable nature of its current policies and continue to apply pressure in the Security Council and other fora.
The joke among Burmese dissidents is that Beijing has been left broken-hearted after seeing Washington’s move on Naypyidaw.
China definitely doesn’t want to be left out in the cold, but, simultaneously, it should feel some form of victory as it has for years pushed the US and its allies not to punish or isolate the Burmese regime.
Common ground between the US and China would appear to lie in their approach to the 2010 election in Burma.
“The Burmese election should not be dismissed at this time,” said Clinton in New York. “At the same time, we should continue discussions with the Burmese authorities to emphasize that the international community will only recognize the planned 2010 elections as a positive step to the extent that the Burmese authorities allow full participation by members of Burma’s opposition and ethnic minority groups.”
To sum up, the US and China may both be repositioning and trying out new policies with Burma. And both will know that while they may not have suffered a defeat, they most certainly have had to make concessions.
The intransigent, stubborn, brutal regime in Naypyidaw, however, maintains its grip on power and does not need to make a concession to anyone.