Engage Burma With Caution

Published on April 10, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Guardian – April 10, 2009

The Washington Post March 15 editorial “Burma’s Bullies” and March 28 letter to the editor “Engage With Burma” do not only represent the dilemmatic situation of many in the Burmese opposition, but also the Obama administration, to a certain extent.

The editorial piece highlighted some of the recent notorious imprisonments and the futility of engagement policy by neighboring countries such as Thailand and Singapore. The letter to the editor argued, however, that the United States has tried isolation and now is the time to give engagement a chance.

There are reasonable points to argue for or against isolation versus engagement and vice versa. The military junta deserves to be punished for its human rights violations and for not honoring the mandate of 1990 general elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide.

The argument that Washington has tried isolation but not engagement is true. Indeed, the U.S. isolationism and subsequent economic and political sanctions have been used for over two decades since the 1988 popular uprising.

It is neither sanctions nor engagement that has failed to bring a democratic change in Burma, but the conflicting approaches of the international community. Sanctions have been championed by the Western nations, while Burma’s neighboring countries took a softer stance of engagement, which has given a leeway to the military junta.

It is not only members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that engage the military, but also Asian economy heavyweights such as China, India and Japan.

While China expanded its global market, its rivals India and Japan engage the military junta to check and balance the rising Beijing influence in the resource-rich Burma.

The editorial piece and letter to the editor also disagreed on the question of Aung San Suu Kyi as the country’s “rightful ruler.” While the former argues on the ground that the 1991 Nobel laureate is a leader of a democratically elected party; the latter argues that it is inaccurate and emphasizing it will fail the dialogue.

At this point of time, there is no question of the popularity and acceptance of Aung San Suu Kyi as a prominent leader across the country. While her freedom from house arrest and participation in the country’s reconciliation process is very essential, emphasizing her as a rightful leader at this juncture could anger the military leaders.

Now that the military and the opposition led by NLD is asking the Obama administration to engage, there is no much doubt that engagement will prevail.

It is rather a question of what kind of strategy(s) the administration will pursue: engagement through a special envoy or by leaning toward country like Indonesia, which transitioned from military rule to democracy, for help. The Obama administration should engage Burma, but with caution.

Sanctions should not be lifted immediately before seeing any tangible progress on the ground. Benchmarks, including the release of political prisoners and making the democratization process inclusive, should be set.

Burma’s problem is ethno-political in nature, and needs remedy.

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