U.S. Needs New Approach to Burma, Former Embassy Chief Says

Burma's prosecution of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the face of international condemnation underscores the need for the United States to employ a new tactic to help transform the country's oppressive military regime, according to a former U.S. diplomat in the region.

In a report published by the East-West Center in Washington in May, Priscilla Clapp, who headed the U.S. embassy in Burma from 1999 to 2002, says the United States has reached "a policy conundrum" in its efforts to push for change in Burma through sanctions.

Clapp says Burma's attempt to keep Suu Kyi under arrest and prevent her from participating in elections next year shows that U.S. sanctions have failed to produce significant results.

"There is no way the U.S. can directly affect events in Rangoon. The best strategy will be to mobilize international opinion, as the administration seems to be doing," Clapp explained in an interview. "The regime seems determined to build an excuse to keep Suu Kyi in detention, if not jail, through the elections. They consider this a matter of their own survival and will not allow any form of outside pressure to deter them."

Clapp argues that President Barack Obama's administration must strengthen partnerships with Southeast Asian nations and adjust sanctions against Burma to allow community organizations to expand.

"A unilateral sanctions regime as comprehensive as U.S. policy toward Burma has the perverse effect of limiting U.S. ability to work effectively with the international community to encourage and support the political and economic reform that will be the essential prerequisite for stable democracy in Burma," Clapp writes in her Asia Pacific Bulletin brief.

Also known as Myanmar, Burma – a resource-rich country of more than 48 million people – has endured decades of military rule marked by human trafficking, opium production, corruption and repression of pro-democracy movements. In 1990, the junta refused to recognize the results of a legislative election in which Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy clinched a landslide victory.

Instead, military generals placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, and she has been held in detention for several years in an effort by the government to silence its main opposition party. In an ongoing trial, Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, faces up to a five-year prison term for allegedly violating terms of house arrest when she let American John W. Yettan stay at her home in early May, after he swam across a lake to reach the house unannounced. Both Suu Kyi and Yettan have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

The United States has denounced Burma's human rights abuses, and last week President Obama called for the release of Suu Kyi as well as other political prisoners. The Obama administration has also extended for another year economic sanctions against Burma, including restrictions on imports and investments.

However, in February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that sanctions have failed to persuade the military to accept reform in Burma, and she announced that the administration would look into new strategies.

Clapp believes the review will result in a gradual shift of U.S. policies — not an immediate reversal of sanctions — that will be shaped by changes happening inside Burma, even though there is no indication the country's situation will improve in the near future.

Although a new parliament will be formed after Burma holds elections in 2010, Clapp notes that an authoritarian constitution "preserves a key role for the military in the country's political governance."

But, she says, the current structure of the State Peace and Development Council government is likely to fade with a new parliament and become more open to meaningful economic reform. This environment, Clapp continues, coupled with a new administration in Washington, presents the United States with an opportunity to relax its sanctions toward Burma in order to better engage Asian neighbors and increase multilateral collaboration to implement democracy "from the bottom up."

Suu Kyi's trial "is certainly adding to Burmese public disgust with the regime," Clapp notes. "However, this only threatens the ability of the military to dominate the country after the elections if people learn to mobilize effectively to achieve political goals. So far, they have not been able to do this. Perhaps the new constitution will help."

Clapp recommends that the United States stop punishing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a key regional group, for its inclusion of Burma, and instead partner with its member countries to promote democracy.

Any fine-tuning of U.S. policy, she adds, must also back the growth of humanitarian assistance and support community developments that are critical to democratic governance.

Clapp points out that local community organizations in Burma have received a boost from the United Nations, donor governments and NGOs to provide health, education and social welfare — services that have been neglected by the military regime.

"It will be important to reinforce this trend during the coming political transition," Clapp writes, "because even limited constitutional government is bound to expand the space for grassroots activity.

Finally, a strategic softening of restrictions on international financial institutions should be considered to "lay the foundations for serious economic reform," Clapp says.

Yet, she cautions that the United States should "only consider lifting its own trade and investment sanctions when economic reform has created the conditions to allow this to benefit the general population, and not just military leaders and their cronies."


The EAST-WEST CENTER is an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress in 1960 to strengthen relations and understanding among the peoples and nations of Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Center contributes to a peaceful, prosperous and just Asia Pacific community by serving as a vigorous hub for cooperative research, education and dialogue on critical issues of common concern to the Asia Pacific region and the United States. Funding for the Center comes from the U.S. government, with additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations and the governments of the region.

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