A Review of U.S. One-Year Policy on Burma

Published on January 25, 2010

A Review of U.S. One-Year Policy on Burma

By Nehginpao Kipgen
The Huffington Post – January 26, 2010

It was on January 20th of last year, the first African-American was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America. I was one among the hundreds of thousands of people braving the chilling wintry weather who were crowded at the National Mall in the heart of Washington, D.C. 

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Nehginpao Kipgen

Like millions around the world, I was eager to hear the inaugural speech of the energetic Barack H. Obama. His eloquent speech of transforming America’s image around the world thereby engaging with friends and foes alike received enthusiastic attention.
Though distasteful to some dictatorial regimes, it was heartening to hear when Obama 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; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Since Obama won the primary elections to become a nominee of the democratic party, there had been debates how effectively Washington should approach Burma. Many Burmese opposition groups in exile were largely in favor of president George W. Bush’s sanction and isolation policy.
In the midst of numerous opinions and suggestions, the Obama administration was noticeably consulting a variety of groups, including academics who were considered to be experts on Burma. I was one of the few who advocated that the U.S. should move beyond sanctions by pursuing engagement policy.
In 28 November 2008 article in China Post entitled ‘U.S. should move beyond just using sanctions in its relations with Burma’, I discussed the ineffectiveness of conflicting approaches: “It must be difficult for the U.S. government to abandon its traditional policy of isolating the Burmese generals and start engaging with them. But they have to realize that sanction alone is not effective in resolving Burma’s crisis when there is engagement on the other end.”
Then came February 2009 when Hillary Clinton made her first visit to Asia as secretary of state. In her public statement on the Obama’s administration policy on Burma, Clinton stated that “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta," and added that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of "reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them, either."
In the final weeks of his presidency in November 2008, the Bush administration unsuccessfully nominated a special envoy for Burma. The idea was welcomed by many analysts and observers.
In 18 August 2009 opinion piece in Washington Times entitled ‘A possible way out’, I discussed the importance of a special envoy who could lead a coordinated international approach by stating that: “A special envoy who knows and understands the region would be a wise option, but the new ambassador for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, also could be assigned. Isolation has been applied unsuccessfully for many years, and it is time to give engagement a chance.”
Then came September 2009 when the Obama administration announced its 9-month long policy review to start engaging the military leadership while retaining sanctions.
In welcoming the move, I wrote an article in Korea Times entitled ‘US Must Understand Myanmar’s Diversity’ on 6 October 2009 stating that: “The new policy will provide a platform for the U.S. government to have access to both the engagement and isolation groups. With the engagement agenda, the Obama administration can now work with members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, India, and Russia. With the continued sanction policy, the administration can still work together with the European Union, its traditional ally.”
Currently, Washington’s priorities on both domestic and international fronts seem to keep the Burma issue at the back burner. The continued challenging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the increasing political turmoil in Iran, and the confrontational nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran have overshadowed other issues.
Domestically, the slow pace of economic recovery and the uncertainty of healthcare agenda are the burning issues for the administration. A successful planning for this year’s upcoming congressional and gubernatorial elections is also high on the agenda. Losing of a senate seat, held for years by late Edward M. Kennedy barely a day before the president’s one year anniversary in office, is also a wake up call for the administration.
Meanwhile, the Burmese military junta is planning to move ahead with the proposed 2010 general election, though neither electoral laws nor election date is announced. The National League for Democracy, main opposition party, is also undecided yet whether to participate or allowed to take part.
Though uncertainty still remains with Burma’s political future, it is important that the U.S. government continues to engage. A meaningful dialogue between the military leader, Than Shwe, and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, must be encouraged with an ultimate goal to paving the way for national reconciliation.
The U.S. should also continue to put pressure on the military generals to release political prisoners, and to address the country’s more than half a century’s old ethnic minority problems.
Because of the historical and ethno-political nature of Burma’s conflicts, finding a resolution will require in-depth analysis, a systematic approach, and comprehensive remedial measures.
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 in Asia, Africa, and the United States of America.