Administration must sharpen message on Burma

Kelley Currie Contributor
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Senior Obama administration officials recently have hinted they are running out of patience with efforts to engage Burma’s military regime. The futility of engagement with these thugs should have been obvious after the junta unveiled election laws requiring the country’s leading democratic political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to expel its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other jailed party members in order to participate in upcoming elections. The NLD had no choice but to boycott and now the party faces dissolution. Last week, 22 of Burma’s ruling generals—many of whom have blood on their hands—resigned from the military to form a new political party. This travesty is merely the latest step in the junta’s cynical plan to put a veneer of elected civilian legitimacy over their entrenched rule.

It should be clear by now that the only way this junta leaves power is to be pushed. It should also go without saying, however, that this is not a conflict between the U.S. and the Burmese junta, but rather between the junta and the Burmese people. The U.S. interest lies in supporting the Burmese people in their clearly stated aspirations for a more just, democratic government. The policy question remains: how to best support those aspirations?

The Obama administration’s well-intentioned efforts at engagement have largely played into the junta’s hands by treating it like a normal government and relying on formal diplomatic channels. As a result, the junta controls the battle space, dictating both the political processes inside Burma and the framework for U.S. and others’ engagement with those processes. In order to change this dynamic, the Obama administration should refocus on moving engagement from the generals’ playing field onto areas of relative U.S. strength: legitimacy, international influence, interconnectedness, institutional strength, and diplomatic heft.

In multi-lateral terms, this means focusing on issues that highlight the regime’s lack of legitimacy: an arms embargo resolution in the UN Security Council, and a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the junta’s crimes against humanity. Despite the UN’s general fecklessness, the regime is threatened by and responds to UN actions that have concrete consequences, particularly UN Security Council action. Instead of giving up in the face of Chinese veto threats, the U.S. and like-minded countries should think creatively and strategically about the perception management potential of these initiatives. An arms embargo resolution, even one that is veto-bait, highlights the junta’s illegitimacy and forces China to publicly defend its odious client. The U.S. and others can credibly brandish the threat of Security Council action to pressure friendly countries, such as Ukraine, Serbia and Israel, to stop selling weapons to the Burmese junta even if they are just circulating a draft.

The U.S. and its allies can take a page from the Israel-bashers’ handbook, and use the UN’s painstaking processes and endless talk-shops as opportunities to bring the junta, and its image-conscious Chinese patrons, before the court of international public opinion. Like-minded countries can conspicuously collect and share evidence of the junta’s crimes to build the case for a Commission of Inquiry, ask for a legal experts briefing on the regime’s “responsibility to protect”, and otherwise publicly express support before such a Commission comes into existence. Rather than downplaying election observation efforts because of the farcical nature of the regime’s electoral plans, the U.S. and others should be pushing back hard on the junta’s denial of access for credible international and regional observers—including the UN elections unit—and publicly calling on the UN to articulate the universal standards by which the election should be judged.

The US should also change its approach to Burma’s Asian neighbors. Polite diplomacy is not going to change Chinese or Indian policies. They have only ever been moved through public embarrassment about their patronage of the retrograde junta, especially if they find themselves outside a regional consensus led by Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. The Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN)—of which Burma is a member and the U.S. is not—is a poor partner for dealing with the regime’s malfeasance. Burma has become ASEAN’s unsolvable problem and a drag on institutional development. US policy should embrace ASEAN’s decision to allow its members to act individually on Burma, and focus on forward-leaning countries like Indonesia—which has emerged as a leading critic of the junta. Public diplomacy in Asia should highlight events such as a prominent Indonesian parliamentarian’s recent call for sanctions on the Burmese regime.

On the bilateral front, more vigorous enforcement of smarter and more meaningful sanctions is an obvious first step. The primary objective of sanctions has always been to reinforce the regime’s lack of legitimacy at home and abroad, and thereby create political space in which Burma’s democratic forces can operate. But the U.S. has generally failed to follow tough legislative talk with focused and sustained administrative action.  Frustration with this spotty implementation was evident in a recent letter from a bipartisan group of nine U.S. senators asking the Treasury Department to use its authority under existing law to go after the bank accounts of junta members, their families, cronies, and affiliated business enterprises, and the foreign banks that serve them. In moving quickly on that request, Treasury should specifically notify Singaporean, Thai and Chinese banks known to have serviced the junta that they will face heightened scrutiny.

The U.S. and other countries with sanctions should make a splashy public commitment to share information about blacklisted individuals and companies, followed up by better coordination in fact. Treasury also should target Burma’s state-owned enterprises, such as the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), for blacklisting. MOGE manages the junta’s lucrative oil and gas deals, including projects where Burmese security forces have been implicated in massive human rights abuses.  The U.S. government should also publicly get behind efforts to promote transparency of payments by multi-national corporations involved in Burma’s oil and gas sector.

The administration also needs to sharpen its confused messaging, which has given rise to suspicions among Burmese democracy activists that the U.S. will grudgingly accept the results of this deeply flawed process as the best we can get, and move on to working with whatever thinly disguised military dictatorship emerges. U.S. talking points should emphasize the inherent illegitimacy of the Burmese regime and any political processes it engineers, and should clearly articulate U.S. recognition of the NLD as Burma’s democratically elected leaders by virtue of their 1990 election victory. Tougher rhetoric should be supplemented with a dramatic surge in financial support for key democracy promotion programming. This funding surge should include a large increase for the National Endowment for Democracy, the Burmese services of the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and other organizations with a proven track record of effective support for Burma’s democratic forces.

Such a robust multi-pronged strategy is doable but it will face stiff headwinds, including from within the foreign policy bureaucracy. A vigorous multi-lateral effort on Burma would require the U.S. to abandon the zero-sum, risk-adverse mentality that generally drives the decision-making calculus at the UN Security Council, and to devote admittedly scarce human and political capital to what is generally viewed as a second-tier policy matter.  There will be strong resistance to holding banks liable for the misdeeds of their clients, especially when these banks are closely connected to governments of strategically important countries.  Foreign policy ‘realists’ will argue against pushing the regime into a corner or closer to Beijing.

But policy-makers should bear in mind that this may be the last best chance to alter the dismal trajectory that Burma is on, and keep it from ending up as a failed state of 60 million people in the middle of Southeast Asia. Two decades of inconsistent, unserious approaches have brought us to this present crossroads. Any belief that we can resolve this festering issue on the cheap and without robust sustained attention is as unrealistic as thinking the junta’s power-mad Senior General Than Shwe can be convinced that democracy is in his interests. He knows better, and so should we.

Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and served as a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration.