US Engagement Must Understand Burma’s Diversity

Published on September 24, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Developments are indicating that the Obama administration is starting to ease tension with the Burmese military junta. At the U.N. headquarters in New York on September 23, Hillary Clinton said the U.S. will be “moving in a direction of both engagement and continued sanctions.” Clinton is reiterating the comment she made earlier this year during her maiden visit to Asia as Secretary of State.
The announcement comes at a time when the world awaits what the U.S. government’s policy review on Burma might be. The outcome of the 9-month long policy review is something not unexpected. The Obama administration understands the ineffectiveness of either engagement or sanction by itself, without a coordinated international approach.
In another development, Burma’s foreign minister was allowed a 24-hour visit to Washington D.C. on the night of September 18. This visit happens after years of the U.S. sanctions since the late 1990s, under which the military generals were banned from traveling to the United States, except for international organizations’ meetings. Under the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, the White House needs to approve a waiver to allow Burmese officials attending the U.N. General Assembly to travel more than 25 miles out of New York.
Though Nyan Win did not meet with the Obama administration officials, he met with Burmese embassy staffs, U.S.-Asian Business Council and James Webb, a democrat senator from Virginia, who recently returned from a visit to Burma. Webb has been a vocal proponent of engagement.
In anticipation of a softer tone at the ongoing U.N. General Assembly and from the Obama administration, the Burmese military junta on September 17 released over 7,000 prisoners, which included about 100 political prisoners. Both the Burmese opposition and the U.N. Secretary General welcomed the news.
While the U.S. is starting to engage Burma, it must understand the ethnic diversity of this Southeast Asian nation. What is today called Burma/ Myanmar came into being at the 1947 Panglong agreement. In fact, the correct name of the country should be called ‘Union of Burma’ and not just Burma. The military junta changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, and as a result, it becomes ‘Union of Myanmar’.
Primarily based on dialectical variations, the military junta identifies “135 races” in the Union of Burma. In fact, the peoples of Burma were under two separate British administrations before it gained independence in 1948: ‘Burma proper’ and ‘Frontier Areas’. The Burma proper was predominantly occupied by ethnic Burmans, while Frontier Areas belonged to other ethnic nationalities, which are now identified as ‘ethnic minorities’.
The Union of Burma has the longest armed insurgency in the entire Southeast Asian region. While the military has persuaded more than a dozen armed groups to sign ceasefire agreements, there are still armed groups operating along the Indo-Burma and Thai-Burma borders.
These armed groups are neither terrorists nor separatists. They are demanding autonomy under a federal government, a foundation in which the Union of Burma was established in 1947. The conflicts in Burma are not only political, but also ethnical. Only restoring democracy is unlikely to restore the trust and confidence of the so-called “ethnic minorities.”
The U.S. government and the international community need to understand the complexity nature of the conflicts. Though the Burmese military junta has the power to suppress ethnic armed insurgents, given the strength of over 400,000 armies without any foreign enemy, the aspirations of ethnic minorities cannot simply be suppressed by force. The root cause of the conflicts needs to be addressed.
There are two different stages in the ongoing democratic struggle in Burma. While majority of the ethnic Burmans may suffice with the restoration of a democratic government, the overwhelming ethnic minority population, which constitutes a little less than 40% of the country’s total population but occupies more than two-thirds of the land, will continue to demand for their fundamental political rights.
In order to find a way out for Burma, the Obama administration is doing the right thing by applying both engagement and sanction tools. The administration needs to continue to put pressure on the military junta to release all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the 1991 Nobel peace laureate. Sanctions should not be unconditionally lifted before any tangible changes are happening inside the country.
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.
While the policy shift is a welcome move, the Obama administration needs to understand the root cause of conflicts in Burma. The U.S. engagement should not be just with the military junta and the NLD, but inclusive. The plights and aspirations of ethnic minorities should always be part of the solutions.
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 ( He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.