Crisis Puts Burma Back in the Spotlight

The current flurry of interest in Burma occasioned by the arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will likely wane, as it has so often in the past, before another episode thrusts it back to the world's attention. David Steinberg, a Burma scholar, says that such sporadic focus, accompanied by sanctions, has not made any change in the Burmese situation. He maintains that current policies, including the imposition of Western sanctions, don't adequately consider Burma's future stability since they reinforce isolationist policies that are unsustainable in the modern, globalized world. Professor Steinberg says Washington needs to recognize the long-term strategic interests of the US and the world in Burma's stability. A new approach should take into account a plethora of issues - which goes beyond Burma's internal stability and impinges on Asian regional security. - YaleGlobal

Crisis Puts Burma Back in the Spotlight

Sustained focus is the only way to end Burma's spiraling descent
David I. Steinberg
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2002 during her brief freedom: Sporadic criticism needs to be replaced by a sustained focus.

WASHINGTON: Thanks to the Internet and satellite television, Burma is back in world focus. The reason this time is that the regime has retaken into custody its Nobel-laureate opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The reappearance of Burma on the world's conscience shows both the power of global media and the limitations of episodic attention to a long-festering problem.


The recent melee in central Burma - renamed Myanmar in 1989 by its military government - between government groups and the opposition is the cause. The initial report that Suu Kyi was injured turned out to be not true but the military was not ready to release her as demanded by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Although the military has blamed the opposition for inciting the riot, they have ultimate control even at the local level, including command over their mass mobilization organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), and its 16 million members. The government in Rangoon must take responsibility for the incident, apologize to the people, and bring charges against the state authorities responsible.


The media attention given this tragic incident reminds us that reporting on Burma, however insightful, has been transient. And as with the international media, the US government looks at Burma only during times of extreme crisis. For years Washington has failed to consider the long-range interests of the US vis-à-vis Burma, and little thought has been given to the country's importance to the region. Rational policy making, however, demands sustained attention.


After virtual self-imposed isolation following the coup of 1962, the world ignored Burma until the people's revolution of 1988 ended with another military coup, this time to shore up the politically and economically bankrupt militarized state. Although not seen live on television, as was Tiananmen killings in Beijing a year later, this failed revolution was far more bloody. Again in May 1990, the world took note when the opposition overwhelmingly won a free election, although the election results were then ignored by the military rulers. When Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 Burma returned to the headlines, but only briefly.


Six years later - prodded by human rights organizations and opposition groups - the US took the 'high moral ground' and imposed sanctions on new US investments in Burma. But Burma fell off the radar screen again for the general public and in US policy until May 2002, when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her second house arrest. That month, the international media were invited in, resulting in considerable coverage of the 'reconciliation process' - a public dialogue between the opposition and the military designed as a continuation of the secret conversations that had been going on for some time. Excessive international expectations were raised about possible compromises and concessions. Positive prospects seemed high in foreign circles - even euphoric - although less so among knowledgeable people in country.


Since that event, a virtual silence in most media has prevailed and the US has done little to encourage substantive dialogue. After 13 months of inaction, frustration seems to have set in. The opposition is upset that dialogue has not proceeded and that in spite of the release of several hundred political prisoners, a very large number remain in jail. The military rulers are also probably frustrated that in Suu Kyi's extensive, authorized travels around the country, she has has been greeted warmly by large crowds, even a dozen years after the election that was stolen from her.


The current media fervor over this latest incident will probably soon pass, unless something unusual happens. The US, as a result of the incident, has refused to grant visas to some in the USDA, beyond the already banned higher military commanders. And the Congress will no doubt impose additional sanctions, this time on garments and textiles, the factories of which employ some hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly women. Again, the moral high ground will be attained and indignation satisfied, but the failure of current sanctions to oust the Burmese military will simply be ignored.


Burma deserves sustained attention. The media will not provide it, but rational consideration of US policy interests demands it. A quiet but thorough review of US policy toward Burma should examine all aspects of US interests, present and potential, in that country. The US policy to date has been focused only on governance (honor the results of the May 1990 election and allow the opposition to govern) and improved human rights. These broad concerns are necessary in any policy review, but are they sufficient? Is not Burma's strategic position on the flank of the US treaty ally, Thailand, important to the US? How does the US regard Sino-Indian rivalry (relatively quiescent at the moment but of long range significance) in view of extensive Chinese penetration through military arms sales, infrastructure support, training, economic assistance, and access to the Bay of Bengal through Burma? Burma is in the strategic interests of both China and India. How would the US consider a Chinese presence at the western end of the Malacca Straits, the most important natural waterway in the world and the US link to our base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf and Middle East?


What are the US interests in controlling opium production in Burma and the distribution of methamphetamines? Should one be concerned about the environmental effects of dams along the Mekong and Salween Rivers? What effect, if any, could international business have in Burma? Could it positively influence governance policies, and if so, over what time period? Dire political, economic, and security conditions in Burma have led to well over a million Burmese of all ethnicities to flee to neighboring countries, including Thailand and Bangladesh. What effect does illegal immigration have on the spread of disease such as AIDS, narcotics use, trafficking in women and children, and social malaise among neighboring states? An educated elite has also fled, thus reducing the capacity of the state to function competently. And finally, what about charges that terrorism cells have existed in some of the Muslim minority areas near the Bangladesh border?


The panoply of issues that the US should consider has been sidelined in favor of one, albeit an important one. The US and other countries need to recognize that there are clear regional implications of Burmese internal strife. Indeed, the Burmese rulers themselves should now recognize that Burma's past glories - its traditional capacity for economic self-sufficiency, its extensive natural resources, and the state's ability to exist in political isolation - have lost their relevance. Globalization, new international information technologies, and internal demographic change have combined with inept management of the economy and political repression to destroy Burma's previous advantages. The country can no longer exist in self-imposed isolation, despite what the military may believe. So, too, externally-imposed isolation is counter-productive, simply reinforcing the regime's erroneous belief in its assessment of internal conditions and capacities and external attitudes.


The government in Rangoon and the government in Washington must wake up to the realities of Burma's plight. The US, in particular, cannot afford to focus on Burma only in times of crises. As things are now, the ones who suffer most from the blinders worn by government officials are the Burmese people themselves. But, left unaddressed, the pain of Burma's problems could quickly spread to its neighbors and the wider world.


David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor and Director of Asian Studies Program at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

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