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  • There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye

    In today’s New York Times, Senator Webb makes his case for a new American policy on Burma. For someone so closely identified with opposition to sanctions, one would expect his alternative to be much bolder. After so much build up, is this it?

    Senator Webb’s policy suggestions boil down to talking with the junta government, increasing humanitarian aid, and cooperation on the recovery of American World War II remains. Perhaps, he is only being realistic. In the current environment, when Congress has just unanimously approved and the President has signed extensions of sweeping sanctions, he has carefully identified areas where he has some prospect of success. No doubt, he may also be previewing – by design or intuition – the results of the Administration’s Burma policy review.

    The problem with the Senator’s case is not the specific policy prescriptions he offers, but its faulty assumptions.

    Assumption #1: Sanctions have failed; engagement will work.

    It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma. But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort. Besides, engagement by Burma’s neighbors has been no more effective. In taking his lead from Burma’s neighbors on engagement, Senator Webb should understand that ASEAN’s engagement has failed for good reason; it was never intended to bring about democratic change Burma. That goal has always been its rationalization for doing business with an odious regime.

    As for the Chinese, there is at least integrity in their position; it has never argued for engagement on the basis of bringing democratic change to Burma. But for that reason, Senator Webb is barking up the wrong Chinese tree – as, in fact, he acknowledges may be the case. The truth is the Chinese will never bring meaningful pressure to bear on the junta. They proved that with a veto in the Security Council in 2007. And they have proven it by watering down every statement the Security Council makes when called to act.

    Assumption #2: Normalization with Vietnam and China are models for Burma policy.

    Senator Webb is fond of citing normalization of economic and diplomatic relations with Vietnam as a precedent for engaging Burma. But there is a fundamental difference. Vietnam made a strategic decision in 1986 to reform its economy and open up to the world. Without this decision, the subsequent normalization could not have happened. It is the same regarding U.S. normalization with China. The Burmese junta has not made such a strategic decision. They reach out piece meal for means of securing their grip on power. That’s why they joined ASEAN in 1997. There was a time in the 1990s when the Burmese were open to foreign visitors with critical perspectives.

    They are much more discerning nowadays. Senator Webb was granted his historic meeting with Than Shwe because the Senator is an opponent of current American policy and his presence could be used – as it was – to send a signal of regime stability to the long suffering people of Burma.

    Assumption #3: The new Burmese constitution is a basis for engagement.

    Senator Webb rightly rests much of his case on Burma’s 2010 elections. But by focusing on “what is possible” instead of “free and fair elections”, he leaves little doubt that what he intends is to accept the junta’s terms. That intention is not just a matter of speculation. He made it clear in Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell’s confirmation hearing when the Senator pressed for an endorsement of the Burmese sham constitution. And in his New York Times piece today, when he recites the flaws in the constitution, he fails to list the biggest problem – the bar on Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation.

    He advises her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to participate in the elections despite this and despite the fact that the constitution is designed to ensure elections do not bring about a change in government. That is an extraordinarily tough call for them to make. Abandon the icon of the democracy movement, a Nobel Laureate, the inspiration of the Burmese people, to take part in a process that will validate an illegal government and relegate their 1990 victory to the dustbin of history. Who will they turn to then?

    Assumption #4: American sanctions have given Chinese investment and interests a leg up.

    Senator Webb, at his most admirable, is extremely worried about Chinese strategic interest in Southeast Asia. It is true that the Chinese are heavily involved in the Burmese economy and that they are using Burma for their own strategic purposes. But would permitting American investment change that? Not likely. Could the Burmese take American investment and still use Chinese investment to build mines, ports and pipelines to secure the flow of resources to China? Yes. In fact, they might find American investors to help. The only thing that will change China’s calculus is a change in the nature of the Burmese regime.

    Throughout his Op-Ed, Senator Webb refers to Burma by its junta-designated name, “Myanmar.” That is certainly pleasing to the ears of the generals. In a microcosm it represents the problem with engagement. The NLD does not recognize the name “Myanmar”. The State Department through successive Administrations has refused to call it “Myanmar.” And Congress certainly doesn’t call it “Myanmar.”

    But simply for the price of gaining a Burmese general’s ear, and nothing more, Senator Webb is willing to abide by the Burmese junta’s sensitivities. It is difficult to argue against increased humanitarian assistance – appropriately channeled through international NGOs and closely monitored for abuse – or cooperation to find remains of missing American airmen. It’s even difficult to argue against meeting with Burmese authorities under the right circumstances.

    President Bush’s Administration did, and we do have diplomatic relations with Burma after all. (Senator Webb’s meetings in Burma in the wake of Suu Kyi’s conviction were decidedly not the right time.) But like changing the name we call it, these things are not going to elicit a response on the things Americans care about. It is certainly not the beginning of a road map to a normal US-Burma relationship.

    More likely, if carried by Senator Webb’s assumptions, engagement will so invest America in the process of engagement itself that it will offer new slices off its current policy of “maximum pressure” just to keep it going, but with no real progress.

    The North Koreans have mastered this game, and the Burmese are learning. What they have lacked is a playing partner. They have found one in Senator Webb. Let’s hope they do not find partners in President Obama and Secretary Clinton.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    7 Responses to There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye

    1. LD, Seattle says:

      Many good points here. It's also worth examining the "engagement" that Webb seems to encourage, as he also discourages the aspirations of Burma's democracy movement. The largest (and virtually only) US engagement in Burma is a partnership with Chevron, Total and the Burmese junta itself. According to the IMF, the Burmese junta uses accounting trickery to pocket more than 99% of the revenues from this partnership, rather than entering the revenues into the national budget. So the result is this: Burma's natural gas is piped abroad (for electiricity generation in Thailand), and the revenues are shared between foreign multinationals and the generals who impoverish, rape, jail and torture the Burmese people. The people get nothing. This is what Webb cynically claims is the way forward for Burma.

    2. Jack Feenstra, Rockf says:

      I have lived in Burma on and off for several years, when I was allowed a short visa. The country and the people are wonderful, but the government is a repressive, corrupt junta. Anyone that protests or speaks out against the junta is either killed or imprisoned. The country is rich with resources, which the junta takes for themselves. I truely wish Aung San Suu Kyi would be allowed to run the country with full American and ASEAN support. She is the rightful elected president of the country who was jailed at her home for over 15 years. Her father, the country's past leader, was killed by this junta when they seized power.

      Senator Webb has not lived there and is completely ignorant of what Burma is really like. Senator Webb should be ashamed of himself for sporting the illegal junta that is raping the people of Burma and their country.

    3. Derek Tonkin - Guild says:

      Mr Lohman should reflect on the serious inconsistencies in his four assumptions:

      1. He sees the answer to Myanmar's problems "in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it [the regime], not abandoning the effort." But then, a few lines lower down, he acknowledges that: "The truth is that the Chinese will never bring meaningful pressure to bear on the junta." He might have included Russia, India, the other nine countries of ASEAN and every other country within a 2,000 mile radius of Myanmar as well. He has indeed himself explained why there will never be the international consensus he seeks. So why, in all logic, does he propose the impossible?

      2. He argues that the Burmese leadership has never made a strategic decision like the Vietnamese to reform its economy and open up to the world. He seems to have forgotten that this is precisely what the regime did in 1988, when they opened up the country to tourism and foreign investment and replaced their "socialist" with a market-oriented economy. But it was Western Governments who decided that sanctions and ostracism were the preferred policy, and what a shambles this policy has produced, with Western influence now reduced virtually to zero. In Vietnam, meanwhile, the Communist Party remains supreme and the country a one-Party State.

      3. He laments the ban on Suu Kyi's participation in the 2010 Elections. What ban? Under the 2008 Constitution she is ineligible to be considered for the Presidency because she has two sons who are not Burmese nationals (though they once had dual nationality, British and Burmese). However, there is no nationality bar on her standing as a candidate for any of the elected Assemblies. The 1990 Elections were not to a governing Parliament, as Suu Kyi herself acknowledged in her July 1989 interview with AsiaWeek: "Whoever is elected will first have to draw up a constitution that will have to be adopted before the transfer of power. They haven't said how the constitution will be adopted. It could be through a referendum, but that could be months and months, if not years." How right she was!

      4. He does not accept that American sanctions have given Chinese investment and interests a leg up. I venture to suggest that he is in a marginal minority of informed opinion. The US never expects to have anything like the same interests in Myanmar as the Chinese, for obvious geostrategic reasons, but the Burmese needs the US, India, Russia, Japan, the EU, Australia, Canada and the ASEAN countries to balance China's overwhelming influence, and as seen from Europe (I am British) we can only applaud Secretary of State Clinton's message during her recent Asian visit that the US is back in Asia.

      So I would say that Mr Lohman's own assumptions are pretty shaky. They are historically inaccurate and illogical to boot.

    4. Pingback: A Response – There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye « One Copeland Crew

    5. Pingback: world focus on Burma (27-8-2009) « Save Burma

    6. Mary Callahan, Seatt says:

      Dear Mr. Lohman,

      Thank you for your lively commentary on Sen. Webb's visit to Burma. I'm confused by some of your points, and would like to suggest to you and Sen. Webb caution regarding strategies to break Burma's 20-year-old political deadlock.

      You argue that "engagement by Burma’s neighbors has been no more effective" than economic sanctions. Of course it has — Burma's neighbors have accomplished THEIR goals (teak, natural gas, gold, rubies, jade, cheap labor, etc.). There is no reason to assume ASEAN members have the same goals as the US. And indeed, you affirm this in the next sentence. Engagement has in fact worked just fine for them. Not for the Burmese people, but they are really not what the other member states feel responsible for. I and probably you wish they did, but they do not and will not for the foreseeable future.

      RE: "The truth is the Chinese will never bring meaningful pressure to bear on the junta," two questions: First, why on earth would China pressure the SPDC to transfer power to a US-friendly Suu Kyi? What China might be interested in seeing is greater security in rule of law and property rights, given its pending massive investment in pipelines. But I cannot imagine the circumstances in which China might see its national interest furthered by installing on its southern border a democratic regime that will realistically be quite dependent on US and the EU for advice, development aid, and military and security assistance.

      Second, if you've given up on China as a lever of influence, it is hard to see how "the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure" the SPDC into reform. If China is not on board, no amount of economic pressure will budge the generals. Not to mention Russia and India. Moreover, what about Thailand? That's Myanmar/Burma's number one trading partner. The whole greater Bangkok region is very dependent on Burma's natural gas for its electric power.

      Perhaps most importantly, all this fuss over Webb's visit is obscuring the fact that Burma's 20-year-old ceasefire agreements with mostly ethnic minority former insurgents are on the verge of collapse. Thousands of Burmese are fleeing to China from a military crackdown on one of those groups in northern Shan state. Buildups by both the army and many of the ceasefire groups' forces are underway throughout the borderlands. These are the events of the last week that will most likely shape Burma's future, while a few years from now, Webb's visit is as likely to be forgotten as have been interventions by a dozen or more foreign dignitaries who have tried to broker a political deal. Millions of ethnic minority Burmese — civilians, not partie to the conflict — could find themselves right back in the middle of war zones, and lose everything they've worked to rebuild after two to four generations of warfare ended after 1989 (the date of the first ceasefire agreements). It must be terrifying right now to live in one of those regions.

      And to Mr. Feenstra, Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, was assassinated in 1947 by a group of right wing politicians led by U Saw, some six months before the country even became independent from British colonial rule. This junta had its genesis some 40 years later (1988), and can in no way be held responsible for Aung San's death.

      Finally, I want to suggest that there is no easy way to promote human rights and human development in Burma. If it was as easy as you suggest to build "the necessary international consensus to pressure" the junta, it would have been done under either Madeleine Albright or the axis-of-evil, outposts-of-tyranny Bush administration. Despite a lot of theorizing, rumors and conspiracy theories about how the SPDC functions, we still know very little about it. As a result, whatever tools we manufacture to try to influence or bully the regime are based on typically quite flawed assumptions and questionable evidentiary bases. How can we say that sanctions or other kinds of pressure, or, for that matter, engagement will "work," if we don't know the most basic details about regime dynamics? When we don't know how the regime works, all we can do is fashion big hammers to hit what has proven to be a very elusive nail.

    7. Walter Lohman Walter Lohman, The H says:

      Many substantive serious comments here. Thank you all for taking the time.

      A couple folks point out the contradiction in seeking international consensus to pressure the junta and declaring China beyond persuasion. You're right. I regret having put such a fine point on it. Chalk it up to the nature of the medium. There is some hope the dynamic in ASEAN will change in a way that brings the Chinese around. It is a slim hope, but worth keeping an eye on, especially as opinion is developing in Indonesia – ASEAN's indispensable member. Having said this, however, I confess to being uncomfortable with allowing the Chinese to determine the ceiling on international efforts to bring about democratic change in Burma or anywhere else. We can continue to seek an international “consensus,” even if it must exclude China. In the end, the junta has no interest in being swallowed whole by the Chinese.

      Regarding a point made by Ms. Callahan, I don't agree that if sanctions were effective, they would already have worked. The problem is, as Sen Webb himself has pointed out, that the world has been half sanction, half engagement. The question is which way we go under the circumstances. I do agree wholeheartedly that there are no easy answers. And I appreciate the comments regarding the breakdown of ceasefire agreements. Very insightful. I’m always reminded of the situation along the borders when someone references the role the junta plays in safeguarding regional stability. In fact, perpetual war along Burma's borders is bad for regional stability.

      As to Mr. Tonkin's contention that the junta made a "strategic decision" in 1988 to open up in the same way that Vietnam did in 1986, I would argue that if the opening was contingent on a response from the West, it wasn't "strategic," but tactical. Vietnam made a long-term calculated commitment to reform for its own reasons, not because it was encouraged to do so by the United States.

      Mr. Tonkin makes a couple observations about elections in Burma that I also take issue with. Regarding the 1990 elections, I think you may be buying the regime's post-election-loss revisionism. Even its own election law described the purpose of the election to elect a parliament, as opposed to a constitutional assembly. If drafting a constitution was its sole purpose, one would think that would have been clear at the time. All concerned agreed on the need for a new constitution; that doesn't mean the elected parliament was not intended to take power and govern. Regarding the 2010 election, its not for nothing that commentators, analysts and foreign leaders have routinely referenced a bar on Suu Kyi's participation. I'm not going to parse meaning of the junta's 2008 constitution as if Burma were today a country run according to the rule of law. There is something nonsensical about that. Suffice it to say that there are multiple ways the 2008 constitution can be used to keep her from any office — not only the references to her family. And, of course, if she's imprisoned at the time, the question is moot.

      Finally, Mr. Tonkin's applause for Secretary Clinton's declaration that America is back in Asia is quite a non-sequitur. President Obama's Burma policy is to date no different than Bush's. Even if it were to follow Sen Webb’s lead, either the timid version he floated in the NYT or the more ambitious version he may harbor, I don't see how that would mean the U.S. is "back.” In fact, we never left. President Bush was at times inattentive to Southeast Asia. And for that I was critical of him. But he certainly never abrogated America's commitment to the region.

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