A coordinated approach is necessary in Burma

Published on October 11, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

It is neither sanction nor engagement by itself that has hampered the democratization process in Burma, but the conflicting approaches. The engagement or appeasement policy spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, and India has not contributed to democratic reforms. Neither are the sanctions of the Western nations producing the intended results.
Engagement or appeasement is ineffective because it simply has no priority agenda of delivering democratic reforms. It is largely business-oriented diplomacy thereby putting all other pressing issues on the back burner. On the other hand, isolation or sanction is ineffective because of the engaging nations, under which the military junta can easily manipulate. The approach of the United States and the European Union is also partly ineffective because it does not opt for a unilateral military intervention.
The United Nations is ineffective because it does not have the unanimous support of the Security Council, its enforcement agency. With its veto power structural system, the U.N. engagement will continue to be largely symbolic despite the secretary general’s personal efforts.
What the Burmese military generals fear most from the international community is a binding U.N. Security Council resolution, and a unilateral military intervention from the Western powers, particularly the United States. Domestically, the military generals fear the overwhelming public support of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition, and a split in the military rank and file that could help instigate a nation-wide popular uprising against the regime.
The two conflicting approaches of the international community have hardened the intransigent nature of the Burmese military junta. Both engagement and isolation camps have been playing a blame-game, while the plights of Burmese commoners have exacerbated by the day, which will have repercussions on the future of younger generations.
China and India are competing for strategic influence. While China wants to have Burma as its unofficial puppet regime, India, China’s traditional rival, is trying to check this unfettered access under the guise of its ‘look-east’ policy. As long as China is building up its diplomatic ties with the military junta, India is most likely to turn blind eyes on human rights abuses and political reforms. Beijing and New Delhi will continue to call the conflicts in Burma as “internal affairs.” Nevertheless, the support and participation of these two Asian giants is necessary for a stable democratic Burma.
President Obama administration’s willingness to give engagement a chance engenders a new momentum of international community’s intervention in this Southeast Asian nation. It was usually ASEAN, in which Burma is also a member, which often brushed off the efficacies of the United States’ isolationist policy.
By breaking its code of non-interference on Burma, ASEAN does not have much to jeopardize its position. Regardless of what the regional bloc says, the Burmese junta is determined to move forward with the proposed “seven-step road map” which aims to establish a multi-party “disciplined and flourishing” democracy where the military holds the ultimate power.
Washington’s engagement-sanction policy serves multi-interests. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority in the U.S. Congress would not support lifting sanctions. Not many in the Congress are interested in engaging the military junta because of the continued human rights violations. Also by retaining sanctions, the administration waters down critics of engagement policy, including many in the Burmese opposition.
In a seemingly positive development, Aung Kyi, the junta’s liaison officer, met Aung San Suu Kyi on October 3. This is the first meeting between the two since January 2008, and comes a week after Suu Kyi wrote a letter to the junta leader Than Shwe, expressing her willingness to cooperate with the junta on possible lifting of international sanctions.
The main demand now for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy is freeing of political prisoners, permission to reopen party offices across the country, and the review of the 2008 constitution. This development signals that the junta and the opposition might be willing to compromise on some of these issues, if not all. Aung Kyi, who is also the junta’s labor minister, should have conveyed some indication to Suu Kyi.
Because of the ethno-political nature of the conflicts, any engagement must understand the history and diversity of the peoples of the Union of Burma. A democratic Burma without addressing the concerns of ethnic minorities is unlikely to yield a long lasting solution to the country’s decades-old problems. One fundamental demand of ethnic minorities is autonomy, which was agreed upon in the 1947 Panglong agreement.
With the recent developments, a window of opportunity has come for both engagement and isolation groups to iron out their differences and make a step forward to the democratization process. As a responsible regional forum, the ASEAN cannot simply sit idle and watch the United States do the work by itself. Neither can the United States alone be successful in helping establish a peaceful democratic society.
It is now time for the conflicting groups to formulate a coordinated international strategy. Both the Burmese military junta and the opposition need to work together for the common good of the country.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.