Responding to Burmese Reform
October 13, 2011
Burma may be in the midst of the most significant political reform since the 1960s when the military seized control. No one can be sure if these changes will take hold and how far they will go, but it is critical for the United States to recognize what is happening, encourage those pressing for change, and start to consider steps to help end the country’s decades of isolation.
Burmese president Thein Sein stunned the world and his people when he announced on September 30 that construction by a Chinese company of the controversial Myitsone dam would be suspended immediately. The dam would have flooded an area the size of Singapore and by many accounts would have slowed the flow of the Irrawaddy River enough to cause widespread damage far downstream. The decision was a victory for environmental crusaders both inside and outside Burma.
More important, however, was the message President Thein Sein’s announcement sent to his own people. For the first time in a generation, and perhaps much longer, their voices had actually mattered. The $3.6 billion dam had become a cause célèbre among Burmese dissidents like Aung San Suu Kyi as well as among everyday citizens.
The Irrawaddy is the traditional lifeblood of Burma, and the potential damage to fisheries and rice fields far downstream ignited widespread anger. For many, the image of a Chinese-built dam choking off the Irrawaddy at its very source while making a handful of elites rich struck a powerful chord. It seemed an apt metaphor for the greed and brutality that has crippled Burma for a half century.
The last time the Burmese people’s anger at their own destitution rose to the surface was August 2007, when Burma’s leaders announced the removal of all fuel subsidies. The price of oil and gas leapt 66 percent nearly overnight and food prices followed. When protesters, joined by Buddhist monks, took to the streets, the junta’s troops opened fire and crushed them. Less than a year later, when Cyclone Nargis caused the worst humanitarian disaster in Burmese history, the government not only spent precious weeks refusing international aid, but went so far as to arrest its own people for “illegally” distributing relief supplies.
The change in the Burmese government’s responsiveness to its own people from then to now is remarkable. Just three years later, President Thein Sein has proved willing and able to annoy neighboring China and his own rapacious fellow elites to assuage public anger that has not even been taken to the streets in any significant way.
Since Burma’s nominally civilian government took power in undeniably rigged elections in November 2010, the paramount question has been, has anything really changed? The Myitsone decision appears to have provided an unequivocal yes, at least for now. In the last three months the government has sought IMF assistance to reform its monetary system, held an unprecedented meeting between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, unblocked foreign news and media websites, and instituted an admittedly limited prisoner amnesty, and its top press watchdog has even suggested that press censorship should be ended altogether. Each of these moves was received with a mix of cautious optimism and cynical dismissal because none of them involved any real cost to the government. The economic and political costs of angering China with the Myitsone decision, however, are all too real.
The reforms being implemented in Burma are meant first and foremost to reverse the country’s economic and political decay. They are not meant primarily to assuage international anger. That does not mean, however, that the United States does not have a stake in this fight, nor that it either cannot or should not take steps to support reform.
President Barack Obama has made it clear that his administration’s focus has shifted to the Asia-Pacific and that Southeast Asia is an integral part of that new focus. As a member of ASEAN, Burma is necessarily a piece of U.S. strategy in the region. Burma could chair ASEAN as early as 2014. The United States will need to find a way to remain a player in ASEAN during Burma’s chairmanship, especially the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit that will require the attendance of the secretary of state and the president on Burmese soil. This will be possible only if Burma’s political system reforms enough for sanctions to be relaxed.
So what can the United States do to help promote those developments? The easiest, and likely most necessary, step is to let Burma know that its efforts at reform are not going unnoticed. Voices in the government have already begun to take this step, especially special representative and policy coordinator for Burma Derek Mitchell and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs Jim Webb. While reiterating that much more must be done, particularly the release of political prisoners, both have let Burma’s leaders know that the steps taken so far have been positive and well received. With the Myitsone decision, it is time for President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to voice their appreciation for the direction of Burmese reform.
It is also important that the United States provide Burma a road map for the removal of economic sanctions. The current sanctions regime was renewed by Congress for another year on September 15. This leaves another 12 months for Burma’s reformers to convince lawmakers that they are serious about reform. In the meantime, the administration needs to let Burma know exactly what steps are needed for sanctions to be lifted. Until now, prescriptions have been only vague and general. Will all political prisoners need to be released, or just most? Will all violence need to end in the border states, or will a cease-fire with most minority groups suffice? Without clear guidelines, Burma’s reformers will remain vulnerable to charges from hardliners that their reforms, no matter how many, will not be enough.
The United States should consider encouraging technical assistance from the international community, including the World Bank and United Nations, to provide the country’s officials with the tools they need to give the reforms a chance to succeed. Years of isolation and economic sanctions have ensured that Burma has few people with the skills needed to overhaul the country’s distorted exchange rate or decrepit public health system.
Finally, the United States should take the opportunity provided by the signs of change to upgrade the U.S. mission in Rangoon to full embassy status. This will send a strong signal of support to Burmese reformers. It will also give the United States greater access to information and perhaps even a modicum of influence in the corridors of power in Burma.
None of these steps will ensure that President Thein Sein succeeds in giving his country a brighter future. Nothing the United States or anyone but the Burmese people does can ensure that. But they will send a message of support to Burma’s reformers, and will help ensure the United States is well-positioned to engage anew with a more successful and more democratic Burma.