The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #291 on Asia

June 12, 2003

June 12, 2003 | WebMemo on Asia

Burma's Road to Democracy: Multilateral Actions Best Approach

The May 30 re-internment of Nobel laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi - by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military junta that rules Burma - has rightfully raised the ire of the international community.

That same international community must work together to apply comprehensive and coordinated pressure on the SPDC, or they will continue their wrongful suppression of freedom and democracy in Burma.

Initial Steps Towards Reform
The re-internment event occurred shortly after the one-year anniversary of the May 6, 2002, announcement that the government was marking a new day of national unity with a series of steps intended to transition Burma toward democracy. In addition to stating that it intended to permit all of its citizens to participate in the political process, the junta's reforms included:

  1. Releasing opposition figure and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest;
  2. Releasing 550 political prisoners; and
  3. Promising that more of the estimated 1,300 remaining political prisoners might be released in the future.

Many greeted the announcement as a new dawn in Burmese politics and trumpeted the success of the engagement strategy practiced by many Asian countries, over the policy of sanctions used by Washington and the European Union.

Mistake of Engaging Repressive Regimes
But on May 30, 2003, the fatal flaw of engaging authoritarian regimes was revealed. In an orchestrated ambush, government backed militias attacked Aung San Suu Kyi and arrested her after killing a number of her supporters and bodyguards. At the same time she was attacked, the SPDC moved against the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, closing offices across the country and arresting many party officials.

The mistake of trying to influence repressive regimes is that engagement presumes that dictators want to change. In Burma's case, as in many other similar regimes, there is very little evidence that these dictatorships want to embrace political liberalization. The SPDC is merely the current incarnation of 40 years of military rule. General Ne Win came to power with a military coup in 1962. Today, Ne Win is gone, but the Burmese military still rules in Rangoon. As long as the international community is divided on its approach to Burma, the military junta will prevail.

Effective Actions Must Be Multilateral
Presently, the international community cannot even agree on the name of that country. Washington and the EU still refer to the country as Burma. Most Asian countries have acquiesced to the SPDC and now call the country Myanmar. The United States and EU exercise sanctions against Burma while many Asian countries, including India, China, Japan and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), maintain an active engagement policy. Japan provided $50.1 million in bilateral development aid in 2000 compared to $37.8 million of multilateral development aid from the rest of the world. China supplies most of the military's arms and Russia is supplying it a nuclear reactor.

Responding to the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Washington is considering a range of punitive sanctions:

  1. Expanding the visa ban to include managers of government owned enterprises;
  2. Restricting travel to Burma, similar to current travel ban on Cuba;
  3. Banning remittances from overseas Burmese; and
  4. Initiating a UN Security Council resolution.

The most important element will be an effort to internationalize the dispute and put pressure on Japan, Thailand and other countries to participate in placing significant pressure on the junta.

To be effective actions must be multilateral. The Bush Administration must gain regional and international support if any actions are to be effective. Two examples include:

  1. There is little point in banning American tourists from Burma if European, Japanese and ASEAN tourists flock there without restraint; and
  2. Withholding economic aid unilaterally is ineffective if Japan continues to pour in tens of millions of dollars and makes up the short fall.

In light of the brazen recalcitrance of Burma's generals, Washington and the international community must act. American efforts should focus on coordinating a suite of actions acceptable to the EU, Japan, India and the ASEAN countries. Without the support of the frontline states, such as Thailand and India, political and economic sanctions will fail to influence the generals in Rangoon.

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