Obama and Clinton Can Do Better

Published on January 23, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Brunei Times – January 24, 2009


Barack Obama’s inaugural speech at the Capitol building on January 20 sends a clear and strong message to the ruled and rulers of the world alike – from Washington to Nay Pyi Taw, a reclusive city in Southeast Asia.


He said, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history…”


Obama’s background as the son of a Kenyan father and the vision of change he has for the world touches the hearts and minds of people of all ages, colors and creeds.


Under the leadership of president Obama and secretary of state Clinton, the modus operandi of the U.S. government toward the Union of Burma should move a step further to help coordinate a collective international approach.


The past 8 years of a republican government under president George W. Bush put Burma in the spotlight of international politics. While the primary reason for economic sanctions has been to punish the military generals and their cohorts, it also hurts the common people.


Although the Bush administration was a vocal critic of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the Burmese military junta, it fell short of bringing a democratic change in the country.


The SPDC is obviously not a friend of the U.S. government. However, the military leader General Than Shwe, in the hope of building a cordial relationship, congratulated Obama a few days after the latter’s election to the 44th president of the United States.


The Union of Burma is one of the few rogue nations of the world, where the rule of law is in the discretion of the military dictators. Since the military coup in 1962, the country has been governed by a repressive military regime under different names.


From Newin’s Revolutionary Council to Maung Maung’s State Law and Order Restoration Council before another military coup in 1988, and extending to the present Than Shwe’s SPDC, the Union of Burma has been under a successive dictatorial rule.


The United States foreign policy toward Burma since 1988 democracy uprising has been consistent in imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions. These measures have been visibly stringent after the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in 2003.


Whether a republican or a democratic party is in power, the United States foreign policy toward Burma has been sitting on the same line of isolationism. The stance of the Congress has also been unwavering: choosing sanctions over engagement.


The Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 and the 2008 Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act were two significant legislations passed by the Congress and signed into law by president Bush. The Congress and the Bush administration also passed a unanimous resolution to honor Aung San Suu Kyi with the Congressional Gold Medal on 24 April 2008.


During the Bush administration, the Burma issue was successfully placed in the formal agenda of the U.N. Security Council on 15 September 2006. Two significant Council presidential statements were also made on 11 October 2007 and 2 May 2008.


Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s announcement of waiver for the Burmese refugees in 2006 to continue resettlement, amidst terrorism concerns in the aftermath of the September 11 incident, was a bold decision.


Realizing the insufficiency and inefficacy of sanctions alone, in the face of engagement policies by many countries especially in Asia, the Congress and the Bush administration took a new initiative by introducing a post for special envoy to Burma in November 2008. This is something the Obama administration needs to pursue as a follow-up activity.


As of now, it appears that both Obama and Clinton are the darling of the international community. The new administration should grab this opportunity to discreetly and effectively advance democratic values by helping resolve some of the conflicts around the world, including the ethno-political problems in Burma.


While sanctions are in place, the new administration should move a step forward by implementing “carrot and stick” diplomacy by working together with key international players. The one similar to the North Korean six-party talk model should be given emphasis on Burma.

The six-party talks involving the United States, European Union, ASEAN, China, India, and Burma should be initiated. In the beginning, the military generals and some countries might resist the proposal, but we need to remember that the North Korean talk was also initially not supported by all parties.


With China and Russia readying to veto any attempt to pass a binding U.N. Security Council Resolution on Burma, which would be the most effective action the United Nations can take, the U.S. should not hope for any breakthrough at the Security Council, at least in the near future.


Obama now has to prove that words are matched by actions in line with what he said during his inaugural speech: “….we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world…..we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders.”


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).