November 22, 2007

November 22, 2007 | Commentary on International Organizations

Building a Solution for Burma

The nature of the news cycle and well-meant wishful thinking lends itself to short memories -- as the situation in Burma illustrates.

The shuttle diplomacy of the U.N. Special Envoy for Burma ended last week without success as if by "success" one means genuine, sustainable progress toward reconciliation and democracy. The envoy's two visits, his meetings democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, her meetings with the junta-led government, limited release of political prisoners -- all this and more will be touted by some as signs of progress and a reason for "letting diplomacy work." The problem is that it has all happened before.

The junta's very limited and uneven cooperation with the U.N. is a ruse meant to fool some of Burma's neighbors and provide a fig leaf to the others -- while conceding nothing. The generals in Burma view the envoy's mission with contempt. They demonstrated this by refusing a follow-up meeting between the envoy and junta leader Than Shwe, by refusing his offers of mediation, expelling the U.N.'s top in-country representative, and personally dressing down the Special Envoy for all his trouble. The continued arrests during and after the visits are meant as crystal clear indication of who's boss in Burma.

At this rate, the U.N.'s continued engagement will become simple humiliation. At worst, it will become complicit in the regime's ruse.

In the aftermath of the violent September crackdown on peacefully protesting Buddhist monks, most of Burma's neighbors reacted with revulsion.

Japan, which has refrained from broad sanctions against Burma, has come under domestic pressure to take a harder stand -- particularly after a Japanese journalist was murdered during the crackdown. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- representing the collective interests of 10 countries in Southeast Asia, including Burma -- has ratcheted up a four-year campaign of slowly growing public pressure. Political support is building in India for a return to a more principled support for democratic reform in Burma. And in the Philippines and Indonesia, Southeast Asia's strongest democracies, parliamentary leaders have called for the suspension of Burma's ASEAN membership.

The debate over "Asian Values" can be put to rest once and for all. The idea that Asians are more culturally suited to autocracy is roundly refuted by the reaction of Burma's neighbors. Democratic values assume different cultural contexts and unique institutions, but they are, indeed, universal.

This being the case, why does the situation in Burma persist?

There are several reasons. Burma is an independent country with a long history of self-isolation and small world ambitions. The Chinese and the Indians compete in what they perceive as a zero-sum game for influence in Burma. The Chinese are winning by a wide margin, not least because they have a have a Security Council veto with which to press their cause. ASEAN has its own interests. Going as far as it has in condemning Burma hasn't been easy. ASEAN itself is made up of everything from democracies to communist dictatorships, monarchies and military governments. Non-interference is the natural consensus for a group so constituted.

The U.S. has the clearest policy on Burma. But its clarity is greatly facilitated by the fact that it has no tangible stake. The mitigating interests it has in places such as Pakistan and Egypt are not a factor in its push for democracy in Burma. And no stake translates into no influence, even when its approach is coordinated with the EU and others.

All this adds up to business as usual -- that is, unless these pieces can be manipulated in new and creative ways.

First, the international community has to hit the Burmese generals where it hurts: arms and cash. They care far more about their own security and bank accounts than they do the nation they rule. And the only effective way to target what counts is through real action by the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. should encourage and support a Security Council Resolution -- perhaps offered by a concerned neighbor like Indonesia -- imposing an international arms embargo and freezing the assets of an expansive list of regime leaders and their supporters in Burma.

Second, we have to find a way to deal with the Chinese Security Council veto. We can do this by relying more on ASEAN. The ASEAN countries are not the peripheral players in this drama that many analysts imagine. Their participation is, in fact, the key to bringing China on board in favor of effective Security Council action. The Chinese care about geopolitical advantage in ASEAN, about its resources, and about its markets. They have offered to follow ASEAN's lead on Burma. It's difficult to imagine how the Chinese could square opposition to an ASEAN-supported arms embargo and asset freeze with continued energetic courtship of the region. The real question boils down to who calls the shots in ASEAN: Will ASEAN adapt to China's concerns regarding their friends in Burma, or will ASEAN chart its own course, and insist the Chinese adapt to it?

The gathering of ASEAN leaders beginning this weekend serves as a perfect opportunity to answer that question and turn up the heat.

Then there's India, the other very prominent arms supplier to the junta. One might have hoped it would take action without coercion. It will, at any rate, be forced to abide by the Security Council embargo.

One thing to keep in mind, as debate swirls about the possibility of pressuring the Burmese generals and their likely reaction, is that the Burmese government sees value in ASEAN, if not for anything else than to balance off its biggest suitors. As Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo explained to his parliament, "Myanmar would rather remain a part of the ASEAN family than be by itself a buffer state sandwiched between two rising powers." This is a point of leverage.

Third, the U.S. and the EU must look at ways to make their sanctions relevant. The hard-line American approach is an important moral statement, but the lack of American engagement feeds cynicism about its enviable position and saps its ability to lead. Unilateral sanctions have run their course as a threat. What remains is their positive side: the vision of life in Burma where the full resources of the international community are brought to bear. The U.S. and others should make clear that it will lift sanctions and spur economic development according to a negotiated, verified transition to democracy.

World opinion is in: It cares what happens in Burma. Asia cares. A solution must be built on a clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment of the obstacles and competing interests, and a willingness to see the problem in new ways. This means deciding who the U.S. can rely on as friends and who must be squeezed into action. It means the U.S. and its allies for democracy leveraging the negative, but safe path of sanctions into a positive vision for the future that is apparent to all involved. There are no guarantees of success. But the current UN effort at engagement has set the baseline. It has failed. It is time for a new approach.

Walter Lohman is Director of The Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Walter Lohman Director, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The Washington Post