Asia Throws a New Challenge to Washington

Burma's repression of democracy advocates like Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has won the country infamy in the international human rights community. Even after allowing a free election a decade ago, the military junta that runs Burma ignored the results and refused to give up power. Another brutal crackdown on opposition just weeks ago has brought the country back into the international spotlight, but there is little agreement on how to urge change in Burma, writes veteran Asian affairs correspondent Michael Richardson. The US and the European Union are crying foul over human rights abuses and planning to impose more sanctions, but many of Burma's neighbors in Asia - and even Australia, a major ally of Washington - are more keen on engaging Rangoon than alienating it. Each country's position is based on its own calculation of national political and economic interests, says Richardson, but without greater agreement from all the players involved, Burma's authoritarian regime will remain in power indefinitely. - YaleGlobal

Asia Throws a New Challenge to Washington

The debate over Burma shows the difficulty of reconciling global principles with local interests
Michael Richardson
Wednesday, June 25, 2003
Now in jail, Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996: How to free Burma from the grip of dictators? (Photo: © Copyright Yuzo Uda 1999/2003)

SINGAPORE: After heated disagreements about Iraq and North Korea, US policy on Burma has emerged as another divisive issue for the international community. Everybody agrees that Burma, the only country to imprison a Nobel laureate, is bad, but they cannot agree on how to bring it back to civilized behavior. While the United States moves to tighten its sanctions on Burma, there is little sign that Asian and Pacific nations will follow suit. Indeed, Australia - a staunch US ally and the only country other than Britain to commit combat soldiers in the US-led Iraq war - has openly questioned the effectiveness of bilateral penalties on the military regime in Rangoon.

"In a diplomatic sense, screaming and stamping your feet aren't necessarily going to achieve anything," said Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. "America has taken the sanctions route. But I've often made the point: the sanctions haven't worked. They haven't changed the situation in Burma."

Downer was speaking in Phnom Penh at the recent annual meeting of the ten foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, and their thirteen counterparts from elsewhere in Asia, as well as North America, Australasia and Europe who meet in the ASEAN Regional Forum on security. The thirteen include the US, the European Union, Russia, China, Japan and Australia.


The Phnom Penh meetings should have been an occasion to forge a united policy to bring about change in Burma. Indeed, ASEAN members did hold a rare and divisive debate about the behavior of the Burmese regime, which carried over into the subsequent meeting of the forum. But they achieved little meaningful unity on how to address the brutal crackdown by the Burmese military on May 30 that led to the re-arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent campaign to restore democracy.

The Burmese government asserts that it had to place Aung San Suu Kyi in "protective custody" for her own safety. It also detained the entire leadership of her National League for Democracy, shut the party's offices across the country and temporarily closed universities. The junta evidently fears the enduring popularity of the NLD and its charismatic leader who won a landslide victory in a general election in 1990. The military regime allowed the election to take place but refused to accept its results.

The US, after sending its diplomats to the area of northern Burma where the bloody clash between supporters of the opposition and the government occurred last month, concluded that the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's convoy was carried out by government-supported "thugs".


The issue of what the international community can and should do about the long record of human rights violations and suppression of democracy in Burma offers a case study of national and regional interests clashing with a universalist principle of human rights. It is clear that the partial sanctions currently imposed by the US and the European Union have been undermined by a policy of "constructive" or "limited" engagement by Asian and Pacific nations, whose proximity to Burma and economic interests dictate a different approach. Even today, countries in the region prefer persuasion, not punishment, to get the Burmese government to release Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues and restore national reconciliation talks.

Southeast Asian nations' reluctance to pressure Burma is rooted not just in their economic interests but in their own political interests as well. ASEAN is an economically and politically diverse group built on a tradition of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. They are especially wary of doing anything that can be construed as interfering in member country's affairs. Otherwise, where would it end? If Burma is to be castigated for political repression and human rights violations, why not Laos and Vietnam? And if the Indonesian military continues its abuses in the fight against separatist rebels in the province of Aceh, why not Indonesia - which by virtue of its size is the cornerstone of ASEAN unity? Moreover, alienating Burma could drive it even deeper into the embrace of China, the rising regional giant whose growing military aid and influence in Burma concerns Southeast Asian countries as well as India. (See "Crisis Puts Burma Back in the Spotlight").

Australia may not have the same concerns as some Asean members, but maintaining good working relations with ASEAN and its member states is a vital foreign policy interest. A Malaysian veto, for example, has barred Australia from joining ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea in a forum that is charting closer political and financial ties in East Asia and may eventually lead to an East Asia Free Trade Area that Australia would want to join. More than one third of Australia's exports are to East Asia. Australia must also work closely with Southeast Asian countries to prevent illegal immigration and suppress terrorist threats of the kind that cost dozens of Australian lives in the Bali bombings last October.


While the US is intent on advancing its mantra of democracy and freedom in Burma, and some Southeast Asian countries are genuinely embarrassed by the behavior of the junta in Rangoon, the call by the ASEAN foreign ministers in a joint statement for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues was phrased to cause minimal offense to the Burmese government. "We welcomed assurances given by Myanmar that the measures taken following the incident were temporary and looked forward to the early lifting of restrictions placed on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD members," the ministers said, using the official name for Burma used by the military regime.

The proposed new US sanctions, which President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law later this year, include a ban on imports from Burma, freezing any assets of its rulers in US banks, and expanding the US visa black list that applies to Burmese officials. The US already opposes loans to Burma from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The Clinton administration in 1997 placed an embargo on US arms to Burma and banned new US investment in the country.

Yet unless China, Thailand and Singapore - Burma's three largest trading partners and among its largest investors - follow the US lead, which is highly unlikely, US trade sanctions will have little impact. Total US imports from Burma, mainly textiles, amounted to only $356 million in 2002. By contrast, Burma's natural gas exports last year via pipeline to Thailand were more than double that figure, bringing in nearly $850 million to the cash-strapped government in Rangoon.

Japan, Burma's top donor country, has hinted that it might review grant aid worth tens of millions of dollars in such areas health, welfare, education and technical assistance if Aung San Suu Kyi is not freed and negotiations on political and constitutional reform resumed.

However, it is clear that neither partial sanctions nor partial engagement are effective in bringing about change in Burma. Unless the US and the EU can reach agreement with Burma's key neighbors, including ASEAN, China, Japan, India and Australia, on a common strategy for dealing with the democratic struggle in Burma, the military regime in Rangoon seems likely to continue its authoritarian rule indefinitely.

Michael Richardson is the Senior Asia-Pacific Correspondent of the International Herald Tribune.

© Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization