Asia’s Forgotten Crisis
A New Approach to Burma
Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007
Summary: Over the past decade, Burma has gone from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to its neighbors’ security. The international community must change its approach to the country’s junta.
Michael Green is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Senior Adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Derek Mitchell is a Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Strategy at CSIS.
U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck. Since September 1988, the country has been run by a corrupt and repressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). Soon after taking power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta was then called, placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy, under house arrest. In 1990, it allowed national elections but then ignored the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory and clung to power. Then, in the mid-1990s, amid a cresting wave of post-Cold War democratization and in response to international pressure, the SLORC released Suu Kyi. At the time, there was a sense within the country and abroad that change in Burma might be possible.
But this proved to be a false promise, and the international community could not agree on what to do next. Many Western governments, legislatures, and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions. Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SLORC to reform. The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. The United States limited its diplomatic contact with the SLORC and eventually imposed mandatory trade and investment restrictions on the regime. Europe became a vocal advocate for political reform. But most Asian states moved to expand trade, aid, and diplomatic engagement with the junta, most notably by granting Burma full membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.
A decade later, the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed the former Nigerian diplomat and UN official Ibrahim Gambari to continue the organization’s heretofore fruitless dialogue with the junta about reform. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress have fought over control of U.S. Burma policy, leading to bitterness and polarization on both sides. Although the UN Security Council now does talk openly about Burma as a threat to international peace and security, China and Russia have vetoed attempts to impose international sanctions. And while key members of the international community continue to undermine one another, the junta, which renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, continues its brutal and dangerous rule.
Regimes like the SPDC do not improve with age; therefore, the Burma problem must be addressed urgently. All parties with a stake in its resolution need to adjust their positions and start coordinating their approach to the problem. Although this may seem like an unlikely proposition, it has more potential today than ever before. Burma’s neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.