A New U.S. Strategy for Burma
by Zo Tum Hmung
Sunday, 25 January 2009 19:46
The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States will mark major changes in policy in many areas at home and internationally. However, the Obama administration is highly likely to continue the Bush policy of pushing for restoration of civilian democratic rule in Burma. The new administration should try a new strategy toward the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military regime in Burma by finding a common ground among key international players on the situation in Burma.
Because time is of the essence, now is the time to think differently – before Burma’s 2010 election.
The United States has pursued bilateral sanctions against the SPDC for years. Burma’s powerful neighbors, China and India, have frustrated this. People close to the Indo-Burma Kaladan project, a $100 million port project in Burma, have confirmed to me that India is fully funding it to foster closer ties with Burma. In order to pursue economic recovery on domestically, Washington will need closer ties with both Beijing and Delhi. Neither India nor China will abandon their strategic relations with Burma, until the United States works with them as equal partners in solving Burma’s problems.
The Bush administration began to engage with members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China and India bilaterally to put pressure on the Burmese military regime. The new administration should convene a multilateral talks involving all the parties concerned.
The Bush administration also put Burma on the agenda of the UN Security Council – an idea initially pushed by a June 2003 report from the Council on Foreign Relations task force. The Council members including Senators Richard Lugar (then the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee), Diane Feinstein, and Mitch McConnell, and the late Congressman Tom Lantos. The report by Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in September 2005 reinforced the notion of Burma as a threat to international peace and security. When a draft resolution finally made it to the Security Council in January 2007, both Russia and China vetoed it. In October 2007, however, Russia and China agreed to a Presidential Statement from the Security Council, condemning violence against protests in Burma and calling for concerned parties to form a dialogue on national reconciliation.
In addition to the unitateral sanctions and working through the Security Council, the United States has supported the efforts of the UN Special Envoys. When Suu Kyi was released in 2002, the United States was hopeful for change. However, the Special UN Envoy Ismael Razali was soon frustrated by the lack of progress and resigned. In 2003, Suu Kyi was arrested again and has remained under house arrest ever since. The appointment of Ibrahim Gambari as a UN envoy led to further hopes, but has yet to produce meaningful results.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also convened an informal consultation of “Friends of the Secretary-General on Burma,” 14 nations, to discuss the matter but not pursue specific action. The Secretary General was almost on the right track with his “Friends,” but the process was informal and there were too many nations involved.
Michael Green, former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that the UN approach has failed. In September 2007, I wrote in Mizzima News that the UN approach had failed to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.
The realistic prospect of regime change either through the support of opposition groups in the 2010 election or through the support of internal uprisings is very slim. The military regime has already reserved 25 percent, of the parliamentary seats for the Army, giving themselves the upper hand before a single vote has been cast. They are determined not to repeat the 1990 election, when Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory. The military regime will protect its power by any means necessary.
The current strategy has failed for years to produce any meaningful results. Pursuing it further has even less chance of success. This argument does not suggest abandoning this course completely, especially pursuing a Security Council resolution. Rather, it is suggesting coordination of all the concerned parties through a formal framework which could eventually lead to a Security Council resolution.
Given the frustrations of the current, unilateral, uncoordinated approach, Washington should redouble its efforts, and lead all the parties concerned with Burma’s future in a formal, multilateral framework to find a common ground. There are three keys to a successful process.
First, President Obama should appoint a U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma as called for by Rep. Lantos’ Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008 as soon as possible. The Representative should be someone with extensive experience in negotiations and diplomacy.
Second, the Representative should take the lead in framing formal “Seven-Party Talks” involving China, India, ASEAN, the European Union, and the United Nations. I suggested in September 2007 in Mizzima News that a framework similar to the negotiations over North Korea would be the most effective way of reaching a negotiated settlement on Burma’s future. After he left his post with the Bush administration, Michael Green suggested six-party talks, leaving out the United Nations.
Third, the Representative should lead the Seven Parties in sending a common message to the SPDC. It will not be easy, but it is crucial to speak with one voice. The message should include the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as other political prisoners, along with democratic reforms. In delivering this message, the carrot offered to the SPDC should be reassurance that they are part of solution for Burma. The stick should be the promise of punitive action against them and the prospect of holding them accountable for all their actions.
There is no easy solution. But the new administration should launch a new strategy immediately. Given President Obama’s strength and popularity abroad and at home, and bipartisan Congressional support for action on Burma, Obama has a unique opportunity to forge a new path to reform.
Zo Tum Hmung is a former president of the Chin Freedom Coalition. He received a master’s degree from Harvard University, where he concentrated on foreign policy.