FPI Bulletin: Burma in the Balance

September 18, 2012

From FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork

The arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi in Washington this week and the visit of President Thein Sein to the United Nations General Assembly next week are signs of the changes taking place in Burma.  Until visits to Thailand and Europe in June, Ms. Suu Kyi had not been outside of Burma for more than two decades, the better part of which she spent under house arrest.  Since her release, Ms. Suu Kyi has led her National League for Democracy to victory in by-elections, acquiring an important but tiny presence in the parliament.  President Thein Sein’s visit to New York required an exception to a U.S. ban on visas for top Burmese officials.  Mr. Thein Sein’s actions, releasing political prisoners, ending pre-publication censorship and appointing reform-minded ministers certainly justified this gesture. 
Nevertheless, Burma’s changes rest on a shallow foundation.  Many of the positive developments contain ambiguities or contradictions.  Pre-publication censorship has been abolished but editors still face post-publication sanctions and have been warned against criticizing the state.  Political prisoners’ releases are conditional, made under a provision that allows for their re-arrest and imprisonment.  Many still face restrictions. Min Ko Naing, a prominent former political prisoner, stayed home this week in solidarity with colleagues who have not been allowed passports. 

The biggest obstacle to irreversible, systemic reform is Burma’s constitution, which was drafted to perpetuate a military-dominated regime.  The U.S. Ambassador to Burma, Derek J. Mitchell, has called the constitution “not consistent with democratic values.”  In an August interview with The Wall Street Journal, he called Burma’s reforms “fragile” and linked the end of sanctions to issues including freedom for political prisoners and progress on settling armed conflicts in Burma’s ethnic areas – which have some 40% of Burma’s population and an enormous amount of natural resources. 
In order to achieve these goals and advance the democratic transition in Burma, the U.S. and Congress should:
Use America’s political leverage wisely.  Burma’s change so far is impressive but not irreversible.  The administration got things backward by allowing American investment in oil and gas, a move that could benefit the military and military-linked “crony” businessmen before seeking an end to the ban on imports.  Lifting that ban would help create jobs.  Moreover the move on oil and gas sanctions undercut Aung San Suu Kyi, who cautioned against it.  Further moves on sanctions – such as an end to the ban on loans by international financial institutions – should be tied to permanent, systemic changes.
Play a leadership role in American investment.  Washington hoped that trade and investment would transform China’s political system and gave up valuable leverage in pursuit of that goal.  Washington does not control American companies, but it should play a leadership role, working closely with businesses to scrutinize the impact of American investment in Burma and provide advice on the political context in which it occurs.  That includes, but is not limited to, frequent updating of the list of people with whom American companies may not do business. The U.S. should encourage its companies to collaborate with Burma’s civil society and avoid taking shortcuts while Burma strives to achieve transparency and the rule of law.  Burma’s people have high hopes from American businessmen who they see as more ethical and less corrupt than many other foreign investors as well as Burma’s “cronies.”  If American companies become associated with unethical projects and individuals, America will be discredited. 
Remember Burma’s ethnic conflicts and the role Burma’s military and corruption play in them.  Burma’s ethnic minorities comprise 40% of its population.  Reports of violence and abuses are routine.  A large percentage of Burma’s valuable natural resources come from areas inhabited by these minority groups.  Without an end to ethnic conflict, Burma cannot progress to national reconciliation or achieve a transparent economy based on the rule of law.  Furthermore, it is not only ethnic minority areas that require attention.  There is considerable concern that the climate of change and reform being felt in cities like Rangoon and Mandalay has not extended to rural Burman areas as well.  In fact, rights violations such as land confiscation from Burmese farmers have escalated. 
Pay attention to the environment for non-governmental organizations and the press.  The U.S. and other democracies should work to ensure that barriers to Burma’s civil society and foreign NGOs are removed, and that new ones are not created.  Burma’s government must not emulate countries like Russia where the bureaucracy and the law are used to harass the media and NGOs and make it impossible for them to accept foreign assistance.     
Avoid moving too fast on military engagement.  The change in U.S.-Burma relations has already led to interest in developing U.S.-Burma military ties.  Congress should ask lots of questions about military ties and training and about Burma’s relationship with North Korea.  The purpose of military training and other ties is to enlist a foreign military in a geostrategic mission, but the desire for military cooperation can lead to the neglect of human rights and accountability.  This would in turn undermine U.S. objectives to support democracy and achieve a potential regional ally. 
Don’t subordinate Burma to the U.S.-China relationship.  A CSIS report released last week argues that the prospect of closer ties with the U.S.  was not a significant factor in Burma’s political opening and recommends Washington “explore collaboration” with Beijing in Burma.  That conclusion overlooks the desires of the Burmese people – as opposed to the government which is not yet democratically elected.  Washington has much experience subordinating certain issues to elusive U.S.-China cooperation.  Burma should not be added to that list.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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