US Policy Options Towards Burma – OpEd


As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the avatar of democracy spends her last day in Washington on her 17 day U S tour, I am very worried about US policy options towards Burma.

Although there is deep bipartisan support for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma, the visit could become politicized in the heat of the presidential election campaign as the two parties are running almost neck to neck and Burma could just be a small porn in the big chess game of American politics? We hope that, Americans would listen carefully to what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says as her suffering at the hands of a repressive military regimes has been great and her leadership of the fledgling democracy movement has been so exceptional, we hope and pray that she could become a force for resolving conflicts well beyond the borders of Burma.

Her visit raises a host of interesting issues, for U.S. foreign policy makers. The pivot will be US-China relations with Burma as a medium which will have a profound effect on the ethnic nationalities of Burma and the other Asian countries. The helpful punitive actions in promoting democracy and respect for human rights, and how to use foreign aid and foreign investment to promote equality, democracy together with the U.S. interests is of immense value to the people of Burma and that of the world.1

China, was and still is the Burmese Generals’ best friend during the 23 years of harsh and tyrannical military rule, following the uprising in 1988 that catapulted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to worldwide fame as an icon of democracy. But, China was not prepared for the sharp course of change under going now, and harbours an understandable concerns about seeing another thriving democracy at his back door. This is a challenge to the U.S. State Department, to convince their Chinese counterparts that American friendship with Burma is not detrimental to the Chinese interests. The rest of Asia particularly the ASEAN community will be pleased to see its transition to democracy as they want to modernize their economy.2

At home, Daw Suu Kyi’s short trip to Bangkok to an economic summit, attracted so much attention and triumphal visit to a number of countries in Europe, during which she personally received in Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1991, and now after 15 years under house arrest, Daw Suu is receiving a rapturous welcome in to Washington and travelling extensively for almost two weeks to over half a dozen cities receiving accolades, including a Congressional medal, from a number of institutions across the US, while at UN Headquarters in New York, Ban Ki-Moon praised her as a global symbol of human rights and have great expectations and hope that she will lead this path of reconciliation and greater participatory democracy and development of her country. All these will naturally arouse the envy of the old man Than Shwe and the hard liners of the Tatmadaw who still wields full power behind the Burmese throne and can easily upturn the events as Daw Suu has often indicated. Hence the US and the West must take great care not to put all the eggs in the basket for the Burmese Generals are still very tricky, crafty and treacherous as “Lying the very concept of Truth,” is still their hall mark e.g. former Colonel Aung Min, a minister in President Thein Sein’s office, made a press conference at the UN, the other day that justifying the hypothesis that the Tatmadaw shoots back only when they are fired upon, tries to paint the picture as if it Kachin were the bad guys.3 If that hypothesis carries water, then the Tatmadaw need not use howitzer or air power to fight the Kachin, when everyone knows that launching full-scale war, increasing troop numbers, intensifying military operations and conducting genocide against innocent civilians while at the same time engaging in hollow talks with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is exactly what they are doing 4 How can one trust the government with such white lies? They always say one thing and did another.

American Internal Politics link to Burma Policy

The Obama administration’s policy of “principled engagement” (replacing the Bush administration’s hard line policy) has convinced that engagement helped or that the turn can be amply explained by internal factors unrelated to the sanctions. But it is a fact that the US Administration is still very much focussed on “Action for Action” in Burma, a reflection of traditional US “conditionality” policies based on performance against benchmarks, a strategy practiced before the rapprochement of Daw Suu and Thein Sein.5

We noted that the US policy towards Burma is remarkably and unobtrusively locked into the internal US political process. When former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, advocated the policy of regime change, with little or no help to the opposition (both the pro democracy and the ethnic nationalities) it was ineffective. However when Obama’s policy of “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” 6

Approach towards Burma has proven that it is not only the most effective foreign policy in East Asia but on the other hand the Burmese Generals have realised their folly of being on the wrong side of history.

The policy of this “pragmatic engagement”- dialogue at high levels and continuation of some sanctions has admirable worked. One must recollect that it was only in August this year, Obama signed legislation continuing the sanctions against all Burma’s imports for another year on the basis that the country was a specific threat to US security and national interests – similar to language used to justify sanctions against North Korea was now lifted with the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. 7

We note that it is significant that US President Barack Obama personally contacted Suu Kyi to gain her approval to ensure that Secretary of State Clinton’s visit in early December 2011 created no negative internal political backlash. In fact for years, the US has hoped Daw Suu Kyi would pursue an important and productive liberalizing role in Burmese society. Now, as a politician and no longer the almost mythical figure of democracy in Burma, Daw Suu Kyi needs the support of the quasi military administration, composed largely of her former jailers (military officials), as much as it needs her moral authority as 25% of the parliamentary seats are reserved for still-active military officials. But if she is to rise beyond her present status as a minority member of the legislature to an executive position after the 2015 polls, it would require the support of the military to amend the constitution, which now effectively precludes her from holding presidential or vice presidential positions because of the foreign allegiance of her two sons.8 (Regarding this Aung Min has bluff that they will change). Besides she cannot allow the Tatmadaw to be a state within a state independent of the civilian control, as written in the Nargis Constitution of 2008, and carry on the war in Kachin state despite the President’s order to cease fire

How Far is Burma’s Glasnost?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to US has been accepted by the world that Burma reforms is a fait acconpli with some skepticism but one cannot count all the chickens because some eggs are still to be hatched. Isn’t the media supposed to be a force that keeps the politicians accountable? In the West one knew it by just turning on the TV or even visiting most news websites, yet the regime fails to introduce the much-heralded media law. They want to hide something and the regime did not seem to comprehend that the media is the Fourth Estate and not for the State. In addition Parliament fails to approve any of the 24 new bills introduced during the fourth session (July-September).If I were to highlight some of them

(1) Despite efforts by some opposition MPs, regime officials and USDP MPs continue to block fundamental legislative reforms, including the repeal of existing oppressive laws and the adoption of progressive legislation.

(2) Local Parliaments remain on the sidelines of Burma’s politics. Ten of the 14 Division and State Parliaments have not convened since March.

(3) Military-appointed MPs continue to sit in Parliament without actively contributing to the proceedings.

(4) While the situation worsens in Kachin and Arakan States, Parliament fails to adequately debate those crises. Instead, the regime uses Parliament as a platform to spread Naypyidaw’s propaganda.

(5) Parliament approves the Foreign Investment Law. However, President Thein Sein bows to pressure from local business leaders and decides to return the draft to Parliament.

(6) Parliament forms a commission to investigate land confiscation complaints but does not challenge laws that justify arbitrary land confiscation.

Even though Daw Suu Kyi and fellow NLD MPs elected, their impact is limited to three proposals and all were rejected.9
These are some of the practical steps of the Burmese Glasnost not at all promising. Not that I am predicting Daw Suu Kyi to be somewhat like Boris Yeltsin of Soviet Russia to dismantle the existing system but that the US must decipher its foreign policy in such a way that will help Daw Suu Kyi and her colleagues to fulfill the historical task of her father who founded modern Burma way back in 1947 at the little village of PangLong in Shan State. The Real Genuine Union of Burma (ppfrSefaomjynfaxmifffpk ) where everybody would be treated equal as embodied in the universal declaration of human rights and the Non- Myanmar (ethnic nationalities) will not be treated as a second citizens or forcibly assimilated into the Myanmar society as what they are doing now, like changing the country’s name and national flag without the consensus of the people, proving beyond doubt that dictators can do what they like. The woes of Burma today are deeply rooted in the inadequate constitutional drafting since 1947 which has to be rushed through to completion to get independence from Britain without reflecting the spirit of Panglong. Even though the ethnic homelands were recognized as constituent states, power was concentrated in the central government. This third constitution is the worst.

The struggle for democracy, and ethnic rights are just two sides of a coin and cannot separated from one another. The US Foreign Policy on Burma must heal these gaps, if she and the international community want to see a stable Burma. But the country’s fundamental problem is not just about leadership, policy failure, dysfunctional institutions, rights abuses or fractured opposition movements, it is confronted with nothing less than a full-scale pathological process of internal colonization, this time by its own Myanmar dominated military. This is an evolutionary process which was set in motion since the coup of 1962 decisively established one-party military rule, where the Myanmar military and the State cannot be separated. Indeed Burma has evolved into a dual-colony in which the population of more than 50 million citizens is being herded into a political space via the Orwellian “7-steps road map for democracy.”10

The US will have to help Daw Suu Kyi not to allow the hard liners backed by its 400,000-strong military to continue making decisions with massive societal and ecological consequences for the whole population; only this time their decisions are going to be made by the Nargis Constitutionally mandated, and in accord with the laws of the land.   Further, this small group of men subscribe to an irredeemably myopic and toxic version of ethno-nationalism which refashions Burma along the old feudal lines where the majority “Myanmar and Buddhists,” rough ride shod over the Non Myanmar ethnic nationalities.

US must show a clear Road Map

It seems that the Obama Administration and Daw Suu Kyi are really talking seriously about how to take the country forward on its reform goals, on its peace goals, on its investment goals, on its opening goals, and working – what we can do to support that…..”Nobody in Burma is anti-business but we oppose investment in Burma today because our real malady is not economic but political….. Profits from business enterprises will merely go towards enriching a small, already very privileged elite.” The President Obama has now effectively removed those blunter, poorly targeted sanctions against the economy generally while supporting, even seeking to strengthen “smart” sanctions against targeted individuals and organizations.
Responding to the favorable turn of events in Burma, multilateral and bilateral donors, international NGOs and foreign investors are descending on the country in droves. The government is being overwhelmed with conflicting advice. Policy decisions essential to economic progress are being delayed by the chaos. Good decisions made are not being implemented effectively because of the limited capacity of the bureaucracy. Hence, it remains to be seen whether U.S. assistance will be part of the problem or part of the solution. It also appears that adulation that Daw Suu Kyi receive during her visit could make it harder for her to make the political compromises in Burma that will be required to keep the democratic transition on track.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, says Aung San Suu Kyi has been promoting a more measured response.

“She has supported a gradual lifting of sanctions against Burma. So have we. The question is how that process is sequenced and how it’s used to create incentives for more reform in Burma,” he said.

The U.S. must continue to press Burma’s government for peaceful reconciliation with disenfranchised Non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities, the release of all the remaining political prisoners and, most of all, real limits on the power of the military.
“It’s not at all clear whether the military is going to cede the strong power it still has over most aspects of life in Burma. That is the real test and we have not yet seen whether Burma will meet that test,” 11

Lieberman cautioned against what he views as overly optimistic headlines lauding Suu Kyi’s U.S. visit as a harbinger of immediate change on the ground in Burma. He said that kind of change cannot come solely from Thein Sein or Suu Kyi. It’s important to keep in mind that the military still has a tremendous amount of control,

“Suu Kyi is stunning, strong, articulate, mesmerizing. But she is also 67. She’ll be 70 when the next national election comes around in 2015,. So that’s a factor as well. I think it will come down to whether a younger generation will get behind what she stands for, and will they be able to follow through ” he said

Will the younger generation — challenge Suu Kyi honestly and directly when they disagree with her or Ar-narde (tm;emw,f) and respect for the elder still remain is still to be seen. Because the Burmese leadership has been isolated for so long and is so unpredictable, Washington and its partners need to lay out this clear road map to Burma’s government and launch a new aid package, to be coordinated with the EU, Australia, and Japan.12 The other day at Queens College in New York she said,
“I came today to thank you all and to ask all of you to stay with us until we have completed the journey to democracy, and we get to the point when we too can help others, Burma can once again become the country it was way back before the military regime took over, a country of hope.”13

This shows that that she and President Thein Sein had unanimously agreed that half a century of military has done nothing good for the country or the people of Burma. US must help Burma to work for the welfare of the people, who have borne so much suffering for such a long time, and that the country is Asia’s second-poorest country on a per capita basis, trailing only Afghanistan.14

So far Daw Suu Kyi, the internationally acclaimed human rights champion, has made only brief comments by emphasizing the need for establishing a proper citizenship law to address the problem in Western and Northern Burma. Why little has been done to resolve the conflict if there is a possibility of a permanent solution. The main culprit is the Tatmadaw but instead blame has been targeted squarely at both the government and the pro democracy groups as the international community is promoting various national interests in this fledgling democracy, sectarian violence such as this has not been given serious attention, especially by the Western powers. The sensitivity of the issue has silenced many from discussing it publicly as the e root of the problem begins with the nomenclature itself. This is just one classic example of how challenging will be the Burmese problem.

More than many other governments, Burmese leader craves international prestige, perhaps because the country was isolated for so long. Realistically, Burma’s senior generals are unlikely to allow reforms to be consolidated, if they believe change will result in their prosecution. The country’s political situation is so unstable that the United States and its partners should allow the generals to retire permanently and cut its ties to any political parties. If Washington and its partners are convinced that progress toward peace, free elections, Burma must permanently dismantling any nuclear and missile programs, and ending ethnic grievances insurgencies cannot be reversed.15

Last but not the least is that there is room for considerable U.S.-China cooperation in addressing Burma’s internal conflicts for personally I construe that China does not consider Burma “core interest” or a formal ally like North Korea, yet Burma’s instability spilling over China’s borders, like narcotic drugs and refugees which Beijing is unable to control this new normalization policy of the US is not designed to replace Chinese’s influence over Burma. Now it is time to see how the US will balance its policy toward Burma during the ongoing fragile political transition, as this remains an ethnically divided nation where repressive measures are still applied and ordinary people do not feel they are free. So from my humble opinion, I would like to advice that apart from trade, security and forging alliances, the US should not forget to work with civil society groups—rather than thugs and butchers—and advance democracy and human rights in my beloved country of Burma not dominated by the Mahar Myanmar race only.

1. Brookings Aung San Suu Kyi Visit to US What Next, 17-9-2012
2. ibid.
3. Burma says will make ‘all necessary compromises’ for peace Asia One News 22-9-2012
4. KIO Letter, To UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon-High-level UN meeting on the Rule of Law 23-9-2012
5. Speech in September 1996 in support of a “Free Burma” Fast on 7-8 October 1996
6. President Obama Inaugural speech on 26-5 -2009
7. Steinberg, David I; Aung San Suu Kyi on risky ground in US Asia Time 18-9-2011
8. Steinberg, David I; Aung San Suu Kyi on risky ground in US Asia Time 18-9-2011
9. Burma’s Parliament: Fundamentals Reforms Still Block ALTSEAN Report 20-9-2012
10. Please refer to Dr Zarni’s Articles
11. VOA 19th Sept 2011
12. Policy Innovation Memorandum No. 11 Conditional Normalization with Burma
13. GMA News Help us to complete path to democracy 23-9-2012
14. Steinberg, David I; Aung San Suu Kyi on risky ground in US Asia Time 18-9-2011
15. Policy Innovation Memorandum No. 11 Conditional Normalization with Burma

Kanbawza Win

Kanbawza Win is a political scientist based in Canada

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