|By DAVID I. STEINBERG||Wednesday, November 4, 2009|
As a Burmese colleague reminded an unofficial Washington conference on Burma/Myanmar a few days ago, departing passengers on the London tube (subway) were warned to “mind the gap” between the train and platform, otherwise there might be an accident.
That advice, he noted, also has merit in thinking about Burmese relations with the US.
That dangerous gap in relations has widened over the decade and a half since the last senior US officials traveled to Burma/Myanmar. The isolation in direct dialogue with that country has also been reflected in US-imposed economic isolation through the imposition of various degrees of sanctions since the failed peoples’ revolution of 1988.
In the past few months, we have witnessed a remarkable shift, not so much in policy but in the efforts to see whether that gap in relations might be narrowed and perhaps bridged.
The present visit of Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell follows the articulation of a new policy toward Burma by the United States, which in turn followed the August visit by Sen. Jim Webb, the chair of the US House of Representatives Asian subcommittee on foreign affairs. These efforts are part of a process, which as Secretary Campbell has noted, is likely to be long and arduous.
The new policy of the Obama administration, released in September by Secretary Campbell, calls for a continuation of the set of sanctions already set in place, and that began over two decades ago when the US cancelled its economic and military aid program in 1988. At the same time, it advocated enhanced and direct dialogue with the Burmese leadership.
Both sanctions and dialogue are obviously not ends in themselves—they are tactical means by which to try to achieve goals. Those goals, according to the administration, are to see a more democratic Burmese administration concerned with improving the economic and political plight of its diverse peoples.
The efforts by the Obama administration to improve relations with Burma/Myanmar through the visits of Sen. Webb and Secretary Campbell, and the new policy are welcome changes. There have been indications from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) that they too are also interested in exploring better relations.
Both governments are, however, in effect restricted by internal administrative considerations. The SPDC is wedded to its new Constitution that will continue taut military control over the critical affairs of state through an elective process that, as Snr-Gen Than Shwe has noted, will bring “discipline-flourishing democracy,” a version of the democratic process unlikely to satisfy the unmodified meaning of the term “democracy” to the Western world.
He indicated in his March 27, 2009, speech that as a new well does not quickly yield clear water, so the administration under the new Constitution and legislature will require what is, in effect, a military filter of that muddied democratic water.
The Obama administration is also restrained by a strong anti-military sentiment in both parties in the Congress. As a Washington observer noted, Burma is a “boutique issue,” important but not top tier.
And, as another writer indicated, the executive branch, concerned with other more urgent priorities, leased out policy toward Burma to the Congress, from which it is now trying to retrieve it.
The attitudes, or purported attitudes, of Aung San Suu Kyi have strongly influenced U.S. policy backed by an effective lobbying force of rights advocates and expatriate Burmese. Modifications in US policy will not easily be accomplished without significant positive changes within Burma itself.
Clearly, internal political considerations affect the possible narrowing of the gap in relations that presently exists. But this is the best opportunity in about two decades to explore affecting change. It is in the interests of the Burmese people, the United States, and indeed the Southeast Asia region and beyond, that this process proves fruitful.
David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is “Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know.” (Oxford University Press).