Isolating Burma Isn’t Helpful

Published on May 18, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Journal of Turkish Weekly – May 19, 2009

The reclusive Burma, a Southeast Asian nation, has once again made headlines in international newspapers and television networks with the arrest of John William Yettaw, an American man on May 6, and the subsequent events.

The charges leveled against Aung San Suu Kyi and her arraignment at the notorious Insein prison has drawn the attention of the world. The detention of Suu Kyi, general secretary of the National League for Democracy, was set to expire on May 27.

Although the whole purpose of the secretive visit has not yet been fully disclosed, it is very likely that the man might have wanted to write about the ordeals Suu Kyi went through during the years of her house arrest. It could also be that the man wanted to know the lady’s views on the future of Burma, especially before the scheduled 2010 election.

The charges and a possible extension of Suu Kyi’s detention have outraged many world leaders from the east to the west. A member from the traditionally silent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has spoken up against the military junta, this time.

“We urge the government of Myanmar to resolve the matter speedily and to release Aung San Suu Kyi immediately and unconditionally,” said Philippine foreign affairs secretary Alberto Romulo on May 17.

While this comment from fellow ASEAN member may have led some to believe that a new tone has come, but this will have very little or no impact on how the Burmese military decides the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi. Under the military dictatorship, the decision of the military leaders becomes the law of the land.
Criticisms have also come in from the western world – leaders from the United Kingdom, European Union, the United Nations, and the United States of America.
“I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency with respect to Burma and maintain in force the sanctions against Burma to respond to this threat,” president Obama said in a message to the U.S. Congress on May 15.
While it is not a preposterous development for the United States to extend its traditional policy of sanctions, it is time the administration realizes the limitations of sanctions alone. As long as the U.S. is bent only on sanctions, it will continue to see the deterioration of Burma in the hands of the recalcitrant military rulers.
The policy of isolation minimizes the leverage the United States has on the military leaders. This does not, however, justifies that sanctions do not hurt the military regime. It definitely hurts Burma as a whole, but it simply is not enough to bring a democratic change.
If Washington were to launch a military strike against Naypyitaw, the U.S. isolationist policy will be sufficiently effective. However, this is not the case. The U.S. must engage the military leaders in one way or another. A direct dialogue between heads of states may not be an immediate option; nonetheless the U.S. should somehow engage Burma, possibly through an envoy.
Though China and India have immense business deals with the Burmese military junta, the Burmese people still largely believe that the United States can deliver a solution to the decades-old socio-political problems.
The latest move against Aung San Suu Kyi is not surprising at all. The military understands very well the sympathy and overwhelming support the lady has garnered across the country and around the world. The military still considers Suu Kyi as one of the greatest threats to its government.
The military is unlikely to release the 1991 Nobel laureate before the 2010 election; even if there is any consideration, it will be with condition, such as limiting her movement inside the country.
Taking Burma’s case to the U.N. Security Council will again be unyielding. Even if a presidential statement could be agreed upon, it will largely be a symbolic one, as happened in the past.
To have influence on Burma, the United States and European Union, in consultation with Asian nations, should formulate a strategy to engage the military generals. Without a new strategy, the U.S. will continue to have a limited leverage on Burma.
Though it has not contributed to a democratic change, the Asian community has already engaged Burma. It will be easier for the United States and European Union to convince the Asian community to formulate a common engagement strategy on Burma, than asking them to pursue isolationist policy.
The release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, is one concern the east and the west share in common. This can serve as a basis of forming a common strategy.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum ( and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.