August 28, 2009

August 28, 2009 | Commentary on Asia, Southeast Asia

Playing Into the Hands of Burma's Junta

In Wednesday's New York Times, Senator Jim Webb made his case for a new American policy on Burma. For someone so closely identified with opposition to sanctions, one would expect his alternative to be much bolder. After so much build up, is this it?

Webb's policy suggestions boil down to talking with the junta government, increasing humanitarian aid and cooperation on the recovery of American World War II remains. Perhaps, he is only being realistic. In the current environment, when Congress has just unanimously approved and the president has signed extensions of sweeping sanctions, he has carefully identified areas where he has some prospect of success. No doubt, he may also be previewing -- by design or intuition -- the results of the administration's Burma policy review.

The problem with the senator's case is not the specific policy prescriptions he offers, but its faulty assumptions.

Assumption No. 1: sanctions have failed so engagement will work.

It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma. But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort. Besides, engagement by Burma's neighbors has been no more effective. In taking his lead from Burma's neighbors, Webb should understand that Asean's engagement has failed for good reason. It was never intended to bring about democratic change to Burma. That goal has always been its rationalization for doing business with an odious regime. As for the Chinese, there is at least integrity in their position. It has never argued for engagement on the basis of bringing democratic change to Burma. But for that reason, Webb is barking up the wrong Chinese tree -- as, in fact, he acknowledges may be the case. The truth is the Chinese will never bring meaningful pressure to bear on the junta. They have proven that with a veto in the Security Council in 2007 and by watering down every statement the Security Council makes when called to act.

Assumption No. 2: Normalization with Vietnam and China are models for Burma policy.

Webb is fond of citing normalization of economic and diplomatic relations with Vietnam as a precedent for engaging Burma. But there is a fundamental difference. Vietnam made a strategic decision in 1986 to reform its economy and open up to the world. Without this decision, the subsequent normalization could not have happened. It is the same regarding US normalization with China. The Burmese junta has not made such a strategic decision. They reach out piece meal for means of securing their grip on power. That's why they joined Asean in 1997. There was a time in the 1990s when the Burmese were open to foreign visitors with critical perspectives. They are much more discerning nowadays. Webb was granted his historic meeting with Than Shwe because the senator is an opponent of current American policy and his presence could be used -- as it was -- to send a signal of regime stability to the long suffering people of Burma.

Assumption No. 3. The new Burmese Constitution is a basis for engagement.

Webb rightly rests much of his case on Burma's 2010 elections. But by focusing on "what is possible" instead of "free and fair elections," he leaves little doubt that what he intends is to accept the junta's terms. That intention is not just a matter of speculation. He made it clear in Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell's confirmation hearing when the senator pressed for an endorsement of the Burmese sham Constitution. In his New York Times piece, when he recites the flaws in the Constitution, he fails to list the biggest problem -- the bar on Aung San Suu Kyi's participation. He advises her party, the National League for Democracy, to participate in the elections despite this and despite the fact that the Constitution is designed to ensure elections do not bring about a change in government. That is an extraordinarily tough call for them to make. Abandon the icon and inspiration of the democracy movement and a Nobel laureate to take part in a process that will validate an illegal government and relegate their 1990 victory to the dustbin of history. To whom will they turn to then?

Assumption No. 4. American sanctions have given Chinese interests a leg up.

Webb, at his most admirable, is extremely worried about Chinese strategic interest in Southeast Asia. It is true that the Chinese are heavily involved in the Burmese economy and that they are using Burma for their own strategic purposes. Would permitting American investment change that? Not likely. Could the Burmese take American investment and still use Chinese investment to build mines, ports and pipelines to secure the flow of resources to China? Yes. In fact, they might find US investors to help. The only thing that will change China's calculus is a change in the nature of the Burmese regime.

Throughout his article, Webb refers to Burma by its junta-designated name, "Myanmar." That is certainly pleasing to the ears of the generals. In a microcosm, it represents the problem with engagement. The NLD does not recognize the name "Myanmar." The State Department has refused to call it "Myanmar." Congress certainly doesn't call it "Myanmar." But simply for the price of gaining a Burmese general's ear, and nothing more, Webb is willing to abide by the Burmese junta's sensitivities. It is difficult to argue against increased humanitarian assistance -- appropriately channeled through international nongovernmental organizations and closely monitored for abuse -- or cooperation to find the remains of missing American airmen. It's even difficult to argue against meeting with Burmese authorities under the right circumstances. President George W.Bush's administration did and we do have diplomatic relations with Burma after all. (Webb's meetings in Burma in the wake of Suu Kyi's conviction were decidedly not the right time.) But like changing the name we call it, these things are not going to elicit a response on the things Americans care about. It is certainly not the beginning of a road map to a normal US-Burma relationship. More likely, if carried by Webb's assumptions, engagement will so invest America in the process of engagement itself that it will offer new slices off its current policy of "maximum pressure" just to keep it going, but with no real progress. The North Koreans have mastered this game and the Burmese are learning. What they have lacked is a playing partner. They have found one in Webb. Let's hope they do not find partners in President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton.

Walter Lohman is director of Heritage's Asian Studies Center. Rupert Hammond-Chambers is president of the US-Taiwan Business Council.

About the Author

Walter Lohman Director, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia, Southeast Asia

First Appeared in the Jakarta Globe