U.S. can be most effective nation on Burma

Published on March 4, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – March 04, 2009

The U.S. isolationist policy, coupled by sanctions, is intended to punish the Burmese military junta primarily for its human rights violations and for not honoring the mandate of the 1990 general election. There can always be a subjective debate and objective discussion on whether the strategy works or not.


Due to its economic, political and military power, the United States has a tremendous leverage in world politics. Unlike Iraq, majority of the Burmese people, more so by ethnic minorities, will welcome the U.S. engagement in the country. And if it chooses to, the U.S. can be the most effective nation on earth that can help establish a democratic society in the military-ruled Burma.

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton during her maiden visit to Asia, speaking at a town hall meeting at Tokyo University on 17 February, said Washington “is looking at what steps we might take that might influence the current Burmese government and we’re also looking for ways that we could more effectively help the Burmese people.”

The next day in Jakarta, Clinton admitted the ineffectiveness of the U.S. traditional approach by saying “clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta” and also added that “reaching out and trying to engage them hasn’t worked either.”

The secretary of state skillfully crafted her diplomatic tone, but sadly it is true that neither sanctions nor engagement by itself is effective in dealing with the reclusive State Peace and Development Council. It requires a concerted and coordinated approach.

It is too early to draw any conclusion, but there is a ray of hope that the Obama administration is considering a different kind of approach. It is important to understand, however, that only shifting policy is not going to be enough; it has to be accompanied by concrete strategies.

Sanctions have an overwhelming bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. Examples of sanctions currently in place are Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 and Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act 2008.

There are campaigners who advocate for tougher sanctions, while others call for engagement. These differing approaches will continue. The question is whether the U.S. traditional isolationist policy is effective or not.

One may argue that the military does not deserve to be engaged, and sanctions are the befitting approach. There, indeed, are reasonable arguments for this hardliner stance. It is unambiguous that sanctions hurt the military junta, and as a consequence, it hurts Burma as a whole. The military’s economic mismanagement exacerbates the suffering of the people.

It must be difficult for the U.S. government to abandon its traditional policy of isolating the military generals and start engaging. But one has to realize that sanctions alone are not effective in addressing Burma’s problems when there is engagement on the other end. There is no foreseeable sign that engaging countries will give up engagement. In fact, the international community’s conflicting approaches is one major factor that keeps the military in power.

A new direction was expected when the Congress created a post for Burma policy chief during president Bush’s final weeks in the White House. Michael Green was nominated Bush’s special envoy for Burma, but never to be confirmed.

The nominee may have not been confirmed due to two possible reasons: first, the Bush administration was not serious enough in pushing the Senate to confirm and or decided to leave it for the new administration; second, the Senate was either overwhelmed with other priorities or simply not interested yet in engaging the military junta.

It is time that a new policy involving pragmatic strategies is put in place. The Obama administration, which advocates for diplomacy and engagement in dealing with the troubled regions of the world, should start taking the necessary steps.

Obama needs to appoint a special envoy. While sanctions are in place, the envoy should engage in ‘carrot and stick’ diplomacy by working together with key international players. The one similar to the North Korean six-party talks involving the United States, European Union, ASEAN, China, India, and Burma should be given emphasis.

The U.S. should lead the international community in offering economic and humanitarian assistance. The military junta must be convinced that it will have a role in the democratic government. Benchmarks, including releasing of political prisoners and making the democratization process inclusive, should be set for lifting sanctions.

Lifting of Western sanctions and abandoning “confrontational” attitude by Aung San Suu Kyi are Than Shwe’s pre-condition for dialogue. The military junta reiterated its stance during the U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s seventh visit to the country in late January.

The fundamental demands from Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) were that: the government release all political prisoners, review the new constitution passed by a referendum in May 2007, and recognize the results of 1990 election. In this regard, the NLD’s 17th February statement expressed the party’s willingness to enter dialogue without “preconditions.”

Now that there is a window of opportunity, the U.S. envoy can help facilitate dialogue between the junta and the opposition by working together with the good offices of the U.N. secretary general. Given the nature of conflicts, talks must involve the different ethnic nationalities. The ethnic minorities’ core demand is a federal government. The present day Union of Burma was formed at the Panglong agreement in 1947 by different nationalities.

The Bush administration had initiated new approach by nominating a special envoy for Burma, and it is now up to the Obama administration to move a step forward. If there is a sincere commitment, the United States can be the most effective nation on earth that can help resolve the decades-old Burma’s ethno-political problems. Effective U.S. strategy, in the long-run, will need the support of both the White House and Congress.


Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He is also author of several analytical articles on the politics of Asia published in different leading newspapers.