COMMENT A vote for Webb's Myanmar opening
By David I Steinberg
United States Senator James Webb's recent visit to Myanmar has come under fire
from the Burmese democracy movement. The protests, while sincere and
well-intended, miss the point of Webb's visit - he was not there to praise or
legitimize the ruling junta but to help craft a more effective policy aimed at
its removal and the restoration of democracy to this proud land.
Writing in the Washington Post recently, U Win Tin, a founder of the National
League for Democracy (NLD) party and a former political prisoner (from 1989 to
2008) lamented that Webb's visit was "damaging to our democracy movement". I
believe he misses important aspects of the Barack Obama administration's
Make no mistake, U Win Tin is a brave and honorable man who has suffered much
for the democratic movement in Myanmar. His sacrifices, and those of many
others in that country, have neither gone unnoticed nor unappreciated abroad.
The problems facing both the people of Myanmar and the international community
are manifold. The people indeed have spiraled down an economic abyss while the
state has garnered increasing resources from its exports of natural gas and
other primary materials.
The military in Myanmar has a stranglehold on power in that society. It has a
vision of their its leadership in that state - a belief that the military is
the only institution that can preserve national unity. One may question the
validity of this belief, but one should not doubt the conviction with which it
is held. That the generals have not used their now considerable resources for
the common good is undeniable - validated by their own statistics on their
meager expenditures in fields connected with basic human needs.
The essential premise of U Win Tin and his party is that political change must
precede any other action internally or in international relations: if the
political stalemate between the military and the opposition, led by the NLD,
were to be resolved through dialogue, economic reform would take place,
people's lives would become better, minority relations would improve and
international relations prosper. To imply that 20 years of internal political
stalemate between the two would be overcome prior to the planned 2010 elections
The military junta's premise is obviously different: unity and stability come
first and must be guaranteed by a new government under a constitution in which,
while opposition voices will be heard, the reins of ultimate power will remain
in military hands. Only then can economic conditions for the people improve.
Foreign states should, thus, recognize the validity of this argument and the
road toward what the junta calls "discipline-flourishing democracy".
Both premises, however, are questionable. The military has given no previous
indication that it has serious policy concerns for the livelihoods of the
majority of the population, and perhaps the leadership is shielded from the
stark realities of survival in that society.
The opposition, which has never had a chance to practice its liberal economic
and political platform, is likely erroneous on two counts: that the military
will now renegotiate the new constitution that is to come into effect after the
elections in 2010, and that the international community, of which the military
is rightly suspicious since the West has generally called for regime change for
two decades, can materially affect the internal distribution of power in that
A more productive premise than either of the two would be to start with the
plight of the diverse Burmese people: how can their conditions be improved?
This is both the critical need and the essential policy question. It is not
only a problem resulting from Cyclone Nargis in 2008, but deprivation is
endemic in that society after a half-century of ineffective and indeed
deleterious economic policies, but was greatly exacerbated by the cyclone's
Realities erode the high moral ground. Both groups claim it internally for
different, antithetical reasons. Externally, sanctions and isolation have been
its manifestation. Effective dialogue between the opposition and the military
is highly unlikely to take place before the elections of 2010. Yet there are
other possible avenues of dialogue; one of them is with the international
community. That dialogue with the United States and the West has been in hiatus
for 20 years.
U Win Tin, reflecting the leadership of his party, is understandably concerned
that this is the last chance for change before the new constitution goes into
effect. The dilemma for the NLD, of which he is an executive committee member,
is this: to participate in the 2010 elections (if allowed to do so - there is
not yet a new party registration law) might give them a small opposition voice
in a new government, but it would effectively eliminate the victory the NLD won
in the 1990 elections.
This is a genuine problem for them and for which there is no easy answer.
Webb's trip did not, and could not resolve Burmese issues, for the problems of
that sorry state will only be decided bama-lo, as the Burmese say, "In
the Burmese manner."
Webb's visit was a first and important step to begin this dialogue process.
Change and better relations are likely to move slowly and will depend on
staged, reciprocal actions on both sides. Webb appropriately called for
amelioration of conditions in that country. It was an important and productive
beginning, but there should be no illusions as to the problems ahead. However
one views sanctions, it is evident they are easily imposed and exceedingly
difficult to eliminate.
But there are other steps that each side might take to begin to deal with the
dire Burmese conditions. A prosperous and stable Myanmar is in the interests of
that country, its neighbors China and India, the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations, and the United States. Isolation exacerbates the multiple problems
facing that state and the international community.
We should applaud the modest beginning Webb's visit has created, and explore
its positive ramifications.
David I Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies, School of
Foreign Service, Georgetown University. His latest book is Burma/Myanmar:
What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press.