Eight years ago I visited Myanmar as a private citizen, travelling freely in the capital city of Yangon and around the countryside. This beautiful nation was even then showing the strain of its severance from the outside world. I was a guest of a US businessman, and I understood the frustration and disappointment that he and others felt, knowing even then that tighter sanctions would soon drive them out of the country.
This month I became the first US political leader to visit Myanmar in 10 years, and the first ever to meet its reclusive leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, in the new capital of Naypyidaw. From there I flew to an even more patched-and-peeled Yangon, where I met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate who remains confined to her home. Among other requests, I asked Than Shwe to free her and allow her to participate in politics.
Leaving Myanmar on a military plane with John Yettaw—an American who had been sentenced to seven years of hard labour for immigration offences, and whose release I had also requested of Than Shwe—I was struck again by how badly the Burmese people need outside help. They are so hardened after decades of civil war and political stalemate that only an even-handed interlocutor can lift them out of the calcified intransigence that has damaged their lives and threatened the stability of South-East Asia.
For at least 10 years, the US and the European Union have employed a policy of tightening economic sanctions against Myanmar, in part fuelled by the military government’s failure to recognize the results of a 1990 election won by Suu Kyi’s party. While the political motivations behind this approach are laudable, the result has been overwhelmingly counterproductive. The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world.
Sanctions by Western governments have not been matched by other countries, particularly Russia and China. Indeed, they have allowed China to greatly increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region.
According to the non-profit group EarthRights International, at least 26 Chinese multinational corporations are now involved in at least 62 hydropower, oil, gas and mining projects in Myanmar. In March, China and Myanmar signed a $2.9 billion agreement for the construction of fuel pipelines that will transport West Asian and African crude oil from Myanmar to China. When completed, Chinese oil tankers will no longer be required to pass through the Straits of Malacca, a time-consuming, strategically vital route where 80% of China’s imported oil now passes. If Chinese commercial influence in Myanmar continues to grow, a military presence could follow.
It would be wrong for the US to lift sanctions purely on the basis of economic self-interest, or if such a decision were seen as a capitulation of our long-held position that Myanmar should abandon its repressive military system in favour of democratic rule. But it would be just as bad for us to fold our arms, turn our heads, and pretend that by failing to do anything about the situation in Myanmar we are somehow helping to solve it.
So what can and should be done?
First, we must focus on what is possible. The military government in Myanmar has committed itself to elections in 2010, as part of its announced “seven steps towards democracy". Many point out that the constitution approved last year in a plebiscite is flawed, as it would allow the military to largely continue its domination of the government, and that the approval process itself was questionable. The legislation to put the constitution into force has yet to be drafted. The National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s political party, has not agreed to participate in next year’s elections.
But there is room for engagement. Many Asian countries—China among them—do not even allow opposition parties. The NLD might consider the advantages of participation as part of a longer-term political strategy. And the US could invigorate the debate with an offer to help assist the electoral process. The Myanmar government’s answer to such an offer would be revealing.
Second, the US needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the non-democratic world. Our distinct policies towards different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action.
Third, our government leaders should call on China to end its silence about the situation in Myanmar, and to act responsibly, in keeping with its role as an ascending world power. Americans should not hold their collective breaths that China will give up the huge strategic advantage it has gained as a result of our current policies. But such a gesture from our government would hold far more sway in world opinion than has the repeated but predictable condemnation of Myanmar’s military government.
Finally, with respect to reducing sanctions, we should proceed carefully but immediately. If there is reciprocation from Myanmar in terms of removing the obstacles that now confront us, there would be several ways for our two governments to move forward. We could begin with humanitarian projects.