US takes a radical turn on Myanmar
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - The Barack Obama administration has broken ranks with its recent
predecessors in announcing its intention to engage Myanmar's ruling generals
while also maintaining economic and financial sanctions against the military
regime. The outgoing George W Bush administration imposed new financial
sanctions against individual regime members and their associates, and often
referred to Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny".
The announcement, previewed on the sidelines of a United Nations General
Assembly meeting on September 23, marks the most radical shift in US policy
towards Myanmar since economic sanctions were first imposed in the 1990s in
response to the regime's reported human-rights abuses.
It also apparently puts new pressure on the regime to ensure that
democratic elections scheduled for next year are free, fair and inclusive of
the political opposition and ethnic minority groups. At a press conference on
Monday, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt
Campbell made official the shift in policy towards a mix of sanctions and
"For the first time in memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an interest in
engaging with the United States, and we intend to explore that interest,"
Campbell told reporters.
He also said that the US government will press Myanmar "to comply with its
international obligations, including on nonproliferation, ending any prohibited
military or proliferation-related cooperation with North Korea, and full
compliance with United Nations [Security Council Resolutions] 1874 and 1718".
That referred to recent reports that North Korea has provided assistance to
Myanmar's nascent civilian nuclear program, which some fear could lead
eventually to the development of a weapon. The two isolationist regimes were
linked in July when a North Korean cargo ship believed to be carrying weapons
and headed to Myanmar was pressured by the US Navy to return to North Korea.
The US policy review process began in February after Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton stated that neither sanctions nor the engagement policies practiced by
the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Asian
nations had achieved positive results in moving the regime towards democratic
change and that a new strategy was needed. Senator Jim Webb's high-profile
visit with senior junta members last month also hinted a move towards more
policy engagement was on the cards.
US interests go beyond mere political change in Myanmar. Clinton emphasized in
her comments last week the various regional security concerns emanating from
Myanmar, including the outflow of narcotics, rampant human trafficking, large
refugee populations in neighboring countries, and communicable disease. She
also mentioned the regime's links to North Korea and the threat of nuclear
proliferation in the region.
Washington is clearly hoping that through engagement it can bring Myanmar into
a framework where international norms apply, including in security matters.
This may yet be a long hope for a country with a long history of official
xenophobia and defiance of international opinion. Yet it is notable that the US
State Department said that it was the generals who are seeking engagement with
the US, not the other way around.
Both Clinton and Campbell have made it clear that US policy would be unwavering
in its commitment to pushing for democratic reform, the immediate and
unconditional release of all political prisoners, including National League for
Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and serious dialogue between the
regime, the democratic opposition and ethnic minority groups. Clinton said,
"Our support for the country's democratic opposition, including Aung San Suu
Kyi and the National League for Democracy, will not waver."
The generals have played lip service to engagement with ASEAN while making few
if any concessions on democratic change. This is where some analysts believe a
US carrot and stick approach - mixing humanitarian aid with targeted sanctions
- could change the regime's behavior. Campbell said that humanitarian
assistance would be expanded "to the extent we are confident the assistance is
reaching the people in need".
He did not say whether the restitution of US aid would be strictly through the
old capital city of Yangon or divided between central Myanmar and refugee and
internally displaced persons populations along the Thai-Myanmar border. The US
provided limited aid to Myanmar during rescue operations for last year's
Cyclone Nargis, which the UN estimated adversely impacted over 2.4 million
The new US policy intends for now to maintain sanctions at their current level,
including the so-called "smart" sanctions imposed in recent years against
individual junta members and their associates. However, it was also made clear
by Campbell that discussion of easing sanctions would be possible if
significant reforms were taken "to address core human rights and democracy
issues that are inhibiting [Myanmar's] progress".
As a stick, he said the US has reserved the right to apply additional targeted
sanctions against the regime, "if warranted, by events inside [Myanmar]." The
reference is clearly aimed at putting the generals on notice that further
repression, such as the crackdown on Buddhist monk-led demonstrators in
September 2007, would risk future engagement.
The policy shift has already stirred debate among Myanmar watchers. "I think it
all depends on what we mean by sanctions and engagement," wrote former UN
official and historian Thant Myint U to Asia Times Online. "If by engagement we
simply mean talking to the generals, then I suppose talking to them while
keeping sanctions could make sense, at least in the short term, offering as
Secretary Clinton said, to relax the sanctions as the talks progress."
He added, "I can see why keeping some of the sanctions makes sense - the arms
embargo for example or sanctions on specific individuals - but the restrictions
on international aid including development aid, and the broad trade and
investment sanctions should, I think, be replaced by a efforts to actively
promote the kind of trade and investment and tourism that might actually help
open up the country and undermine the status quo."
One near-term measure of the policy's success will center on the 2010
elections. Clinton said last week that "now is not the time to endorse or
dismiss the process" and that "we urge [concerned Burmese parties] to take a
measured approach to the 2010 elections until we can assess electoral
conditions and determine whether opposition and ethnic groups will
Clinton continued, "At the same time, we should continue discussions with the
[Myanmar] authorities to emphasize that the international community will only
recognize the planned 2010 elections as a positive step to the extent that the
[Myanmar] authorities allow full participation by members of [Myanmar's]
opposition and ethnic minority groups."
Campbell said that while the US government is skeptical that elections will be
either free or fair, it will stress to the regime what conditions would be
acceptable by Washington to label the electoral process credible.
The junta has so far ignored calls by opposition groups to amend the 2008
constitution or to state clearly under what terms political parties can
organize and how the electoral process will be managed. Government
intransigence and a widely perceived rigged national referendum to approve a
new constitution last year has left many in the political opposition dubious
about the prospects for the upcoming election.
The situation is not helped by the fact that most key opposition leaders,
including Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD chairman U Tin Oo, Shan National League for
Democracy leader U Khun Tun Oo and 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing
still remain either in prison or under house arrest. Meanwhile, calls by ethnic
minority leaders for constitutional provisions guaranteeing their political,
social and cultural rights were ignored by the junta in drafting the 2008
Several of the ethnic political groups have declared they will likely not
participate in the elections. Ethnic insurgent groups who have maintained
ceasefires with the regime for over 20 years suddenly saw their status in
jeopardy last month when government troops attacked and routed a ceasefire
group, the Kokang, on the Myanmar-China border. The ceasefire groups have been
under mounting pressure to turn their troops over to government control and
form political parties to join the election process.
In order to make the elections acceptable to the US, the junta will need to
involve both the political opposition and the ethnic minorities in the process.
Clinton called for the junta's engagement with the political opposition and
ethnic groups to ascertain their desire for the democratic reform process. This
was echoed by Campbell, who said that the US will push for "initiation of a
credible internal dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority
leaders on elements of reconciliation and reform".
This call was supported by detained pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, who through
her lawyer welcomed US intentions to diplomatically engage the generals, but
reiterated that the opposition should also be consulted. A letter written by
Suu Kyi to Myanmar's military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, and due to be
officially submitted in the coming days, seeks permission to meet with foreign
ambassadors in Yangon to learn their views on the US policy shift.
The first substantive talks with Myanmar officials are expected to take place
on the sidelines of the current UN General Assembly, which is being attended by
Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Prime Minister General Thein Sein, the
highest-ranking Myanmar leader to attend in 14 years. The US waived travel
restrictions to junta members, allowing them to leave New York and travel to
Washington during their stay.
The question going forward is whether Myanmar's rulers are serious about
reaching out to the US or simply employing another of their diversionary
tactics to draw attention away from other issues in the lead up to the
elections. It's a tactic the regime has frequently used in the past when
dealing with the United Nations. And it's not clear to most the generals will
accept any compromise suggested by the US that weakens their hold on power.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached
at [email protected] Additional reporting by Asia Times Online's
Managing Editor Charles McDermid.