August 28, 2009
By Walter Lohman
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
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
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
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
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
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.
First Appeared in the Jakarta Globe
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?
Director, Asian Studies Center
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