lunes, 27 de abril de 2009

Obama's clock ticks down on Myanmar By Brian McCartan

Remarks made by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about a review of US policy towards Myanmar have stirred new debate about the effectiveness of Washington's long-held sanctions regime and what course possible engagement with the hardline military junta should follow. Some analysts have even interpreted Clinton's comments as a tacit admission that past policies towards Myanmar have largely failed.

But Clinton may not have had a full-blown policy review in mind after her comments at a February 17 "town hall" meeting at Tokyo University in response to a question from a Myanmar student about policy alternatives to economic and financial sanctions. According to an informed source with high-level US government contacts, Clinton's remarks were made largely off the cuff and were not intended to signal a shift in policy.

Clinton followed up the remarks the following day at a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, where she said, "Clearly the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the [Myanmar] junta." She added that the "constructive engagement" route taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since 1997 has also not had much positive effect. In reply to questions on Clinton's remarks, the State Department has since said that the policy review is ongoing.

The 1995 Free Burma Act imposed stiff economic and trade sanctions against Myanmar for its abysmal human-rights record. An amendment to the 1997 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act allowed the US president to determine if and when to impose sanctions on Myanmar and gave the executive the diplomatic flexibility to decide whether the generals had improved the country's human rights policy. In 1997, then-president Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13047 which disallowed most new investment in Myanmar.

In 2003, the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act was signed by president George W Bush and banned the importation of any Myanmar product, froze any US-situated assets of certain Myanmar government officials and imposed a visa ban on Myanmar officials and their families. That was followed by more financial sanctions in 2007 against select Myanmar government officials, their family members and their business associates and related companies.

Last year the Tom Lantos Burma JADE Act came into force, imposing financial sanctions and travel restrictions as well as sanctions on the import of Myanmar jade and other stones and jewelry.

Opponents of the sanctions say that ordinary Myanmar citizens suffer more than the targeted generals and that after 14 years there is little evidence they have influenced the military regime to reform. At the same time, the sanctions have pushed the regime further into China's sphere of influence and allowed companies from South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, China and India to pursue investment opportunities that American companies must forego.

Mixed signals
Scot Marciel, the new US special envoy to ASEAN, said at a conference held in late February at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, "The US's goals and objectives for [Myanmar] remain the same." He went on to specify those objectives as a unified, peaceful and stable Myanmar, the release of political prisoners, and genuine dialogue between the government and the political opposition.

Many Myanmar observers thought they saw more proof in a possible shift in American policy in late March when Stephen Blake, director of the Office for Mainland Southeast Asia, made the first visit by a senior US diplomat to Myanmar in over seven years. The State Department played down the visit and said it was a part of a five-country tour and did not signal a change in policy. Following diplomatic protocol, Blake held meetings with Myanmar's Foreign Minister Nyan Win and other government ministers, as well as senior members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

According to Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the Washington-based US Campaign for Burma, "It is all part of the game. Everyone knows that to have real talks they must speak with [Senior General] Than Shwe." In an April 3 article written for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the US Campaign for Burma's executive director wrote, "Direct engagement should only be with the regime's sole decision maker, Senior General Than Shwe. Meetings with other officials, who are not involved in decision making, will not produce results."

The Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP), a group formed to represent the members of parliament elected in Myanmar's annulled 1990 elections, further muddled the issue when it told The Irrawaddy magazine that Blake told them in a meeting in Yangon that some existing sanctions would be removed while others would remain in place. These comments apparently inspired 17 members of the US Congress to write a letter to Clinton on April 3, expressing their concern about the possible lifting of sanctions.

If there are to be any changes to US policy towards Myanmar, they won't likely take place until this autumn or later. The US has yet to appoint an assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs or one for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the two bureaus that have primary responsibility for Myanmar. US President Barack Obama this week nominated Kurt Campbell for the East Asia post, but until he is confirmed and the other assistant secretary slot is filled, a full review of Myanmar policy can not be undertaken.

Whether intentional or not, Clinton's comments have stirred up a hornets' nest of debate on possible methods of engagement and the efficacy of past sanctions. At a seminar at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies on February 5, Andrew Selth, a research fellow at Australia's Griffith University and noted Myanmar scholar, outlined three possible approaches for dealing with Myanmar.

The first, favored by previous US governments, entails the use of sanctions to pressure the regime into political change. The second is the "constructive engagement" policy followed by ASEAN. The third is a more pragmatic approach preferred by China, India and Russia, which have engaged the junta economically. The second and third approaches are focused on developing better relations to promote business interests with very little, if any, criticism of Myanmar's human-rights record or poor governance.

Business pressures
As noted by Clinton in Jakarta, none of these approaches have so far been successful in pressuring the junta towards change. Some big US business interests, including oil and gas giant Chevron, which has energy interests pre-dating the imposition of sanctions on Myanmar, as well as the US-ASEAN Business Council, have said they would like to see sanctions rescinded entirely.

Others are calling for the removal of the blanket economic sanctions, including a ban on new investments, while keeping in place the more recently Treasury Department imposed "smart sanctions" that target the bank accounts and travel ability of certain junta members, their families and business associates.

The anti-sanction lobby claims the restrictions have slowed Myanmar's economic development and hindered US business interests. Several American companies opted to pull out of Myanmar in the 1990s, including Pepsi, Levi-Strauss and Apple Computers due to consumer and shareholder pressure, leaving Chevron as the only major US company with significant interests in Myanmar.

Sanctions opponents argue further that economic engagement with Myanmar would create another locus of power - a growing middle class - that will press for more rule of law, protection of private property and eventually democracy. They contend US-led sanctions have allowed more morally ambiguous countries like China to win diplomatic and economic sway.

Sean Turnell, a professor at Australia's Macquarie University and editor of Burma Economic Watch, said in testimony on Thursday before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that "economic and financial sanctions should be retained at the present time". He said the Bush administration's financial sanctions are "especially justifiable" and could be used as leverage in response to genuine reform in Myanmar.

"Lifting sanctions now would not only embolden [Myanmar's] present reform-shy regime, but also greatly de-leverage the ability of the United States to influence future events," he cautioned.

Turnell also argued that the creation of a middle class in Myanmar was not possible any time soon precisely because the regime controlled virtually all capital goods such as oil, gas, gems, and agriculture. Most economic activity is centered within the state sector, with private businesses forced to deal with the state for contracts, permits or licenses.

Turnell also explained how poverty in Myanmar was caused by decades of chronic economic mismanagement that predated US and Western sanctions and has continued into the present. He also argued that investment from non-American companies made economic sense, noting that there is little demand in the US for Myanmar goods but that there is in neighboring countries.

Others agree with that economic reasoning. The US Campaign for Burma's Quigley said, "Now is the wrong time to go soft. If sanctions are ended, the regime looks victorious." She continued, "Many people talk of sanctions versus engagement, but it is really sanctions and engagement. The more the regime engages with the NLD and the ethnic minorities then sanctions can be reduced."

Fragmented community
Still, many observers recognize that while isolation has not worked, neither has unilateral engagement nor attempts by United Nations' envoys to open genuine discussions with the regime's leadership. The ruling generals are clearly aware that the international community is fragmented in its approach and are able to leverage the different views and approaches to their advantage.

Selth argued it is crucial to gauge the generals' mentality and play on their perceived threats to national security. Instead, if the US shifts tack, it is expected to take a multilateral approach in which Washington engages more with Myanmar's ASEAN neighbors in an attempt to form a united policy front vis-a-vis China's and India's commercial first approach towards the junta.

Given ASEAN's policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states, this will not be an easy task. One idea put forward by some analysts is to follow the six-party talks format now used in discussions with North Korea. But this approach is less likely to work with Myanmar's generals because of their known strong aversion to any foreign intervention. Nor is Myanmar dependent on the international community for food aid, as is the case with North Korea.

The potential for a US policy shift comes while humanitarian organizations debate over how much change can be leveraged from the junta's openness to their activities in the Irrawaddy Delta following the Cyclone Nargis disaster last May. One side believes that the access they gained may be expanded to the rest of the country as long as the international community goes softer on its push for political change. Others argue that the regime's openness in the Delta is likely only temporary and that the generals have used the aid for political gains.

Koos Richelle, director general of the European Commission's Europe Aid Cooperation, said after a late April meeting in Manila that the EU was willing to provide increased development aid to Myanmar, but that the country's leaders were "not opening up for what we consider to be normal contact". Expressing frustration at the generals' refusal to discuss development programs needed by the country, he said, "We are not a money making machine throwing envelopes over the fence."

A separate process, apparently unrelated to Clinton's remarks in Indonesia, is the Myanmar policy review announced by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will begin next month and take three to four months to complete. The aim of the review, congressional staffers say, is to make US policy towards Myanmar more effective and to increase international cooperation on Myanmar.

The two movers behind the Senate policy review, however, approach Myanmar from two very different directions. Democrat Senator John Kerry, the new chairman of the committee, has been a long-time supporter of the Myanmar's squashed democracy movement. Rather than soften policy, Kerry is reportedly more interested in finding ways to increase humanitarian aid to the country without softening pressure for political change.

Democratic Senator James Webb, on the other hand, comes from a more business-minded perspective and would like to see sanctions partially or entirely removed. He said on April 3 that the US should have a more constructive policy on Myanmar that works toward removing sanctions through a more "aggressive diplomatic posture" and through confidence-building measures.

Still, many activists and Myanmar analysts think there is likely to be little, if any, substantive change in US policy on Myanmar any time soon. They note that the Tom Lantos JADE Act, which bars US imports of Myanmar gems from third countries, was passed less than a year ago by a wide margin in Congress. New Vice President Joseph Biden, they note, was a key player in the JADE Act's passage.

The first real indication of the Obama administration's intentions towards Myanmar will come when he decides whether to extend the New Investment Ban, which was first put in place by then President Bill Clinton in 1997 and is set to expire on May 15.

The ban has been a key part of the US's sanctions regime and its renewal would signal Obama intends to remain tough with Myanmar. Should he allow it to lapse, it could signal a more conciliatory policy approach to a regime the outgoing Bush administration once referred to as an "outpost of tyranny".

Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist.