Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: U.S. Policy Shift on Burma Gets Mixed Reactions

Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Sep 25 2009 (IPS) - The shift in the United States policy towards Burma has been met with mixed reactions, with few believing it will have an impact. But the South-east Asian state’s detained opposition leader has already endorsed Washington’s move to start talks with the reclusive regime.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that direct engagement is good,” said her lawyer and spokesman for her party, the National League for Democracy, Nyan Win. “She accepts it, but she says that engagement must be with both sides,” he told local journalists in Rangoon.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed Washington’s change in policy towards the junta, and that now the U.S. government would pursue a policy of engagement as well as sanctions to help bring democratic change to Burma.

“Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion,” she announced Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. “So, going forward we will be employing both of these tools … to help achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with the Burmese authorities.”

“We want credible, democratic reform, a government that responds to the needs of the Burmese people, the immediate, unconditional release of political prisoners … (and) serious dialogue with the opposition and minority ethnic groups,” Clinton said.

The pro-democracy movement abroad reacted cautiously. “We must warily welcome it,” said a spokesman for the exiled democratic opposition based in Thailand, Zin Linn. “We cannot expect much, but if it helps get Aung San Suu Kyi released, then it is certainly a very good move.”

Inside Burma, most people are more sceptical. “Nothing can budge them (the military junta), they don’t listen to anyone, and they don’t care about anything other than themselves,” a small stall holder in Rangoon, told Inter Press Service.

Most people don’t think it will work, said a Burmese journalist on condition of anonymity. “It’s an OK approach, but it’s too late – what can be done now with elections planned next year? There’s not enough time to change the generals’ minds,” he said.

But for many analysts and diplomats who follow Burmese affair closely, this may be a case of the U.S. trying to have its cake and eat it. “It’s a change of style rather than substance – Mr Obama is doing the same with Pyongyang, Damascus, Havana and Tehran,” said the former British ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam, Derek Tonkin. “The policy is likely to produce better results than Bush’s unilateralism.”

The U.S. has been reviewing its policy towards Burma ever since the new administration took office in January. In fact, state department officials say the review was ordered almost within days of Obama winning the elections. The general conclusion, though, was heavily hinted at as early as February, when Clinton told Indonesian president Susilo Yudhono on a visit to Jakarta that sanctions against Burma had not worked and a more nuanced policy towards it was needed.

The U.S. held high-level talks directly with senior representatives of the Burmese government in Beijing in July 2007, brokered by the Chinese government. A future meeting, tentatively planned for November, was scotched when the junta violently cracked down on the mass anti-government protests in Rangoon led by Buddhist monks.

“This is nothing new – it’s a return to the ‘carrot and stick’ approach of the ‘90s,” said Sein Kyaw Hlaing, an editor of the Burmese dissident news website, ‘Hitpyaing’ or ‘The New Era Journal’. Then it was the World Bank and the U.N. that took the initiative and offered aid and investment incentives in return for political concessions. “It did not work then and it won’t work now,” he said.

There is no doubt that in recent months the Burmese junta has begun to court the West, especially the U.S. The recent high-profile visit of the American senator Jim Webb clearly showed the junta’s interest in engaging Washington. His reception in the capital, Naypyidaw, was on par with that which is strictly reserved for visiting heads of state, according to diplomats based in Rangoon. And his welcome was even more enthusiastic than that given to the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, when he visited Burma in July.

Burma’s neighbours and fellow members of the regional grouping ASEAN have also been encouraging the junta to seize the opportunity to reach out to Washington as it reviewed its overall policy and strategy towards the military regime. Singapore, in particular, has been at the forefront of this move. But while the generals may be keen to improve relations with the U.S., they are also keen to have sanctions lifted. As the international economic crisis and credit crunch begins to bite, they are anxious to reduce the impact sanctions have had on the country.

What Washington offers for talks with the regime may yet determine how successful this shift in U.S. policy will be. “Words are not enough,” said Tonkin. “The U.S. needs to make some concrete gesture, like removing sanctions which seriously affect the people, like the embargo on garment exports.”

But it is a start, according to some analysts. The sanctions policy largely failed because it was purely punitive – ratcheted up when the regime did anything unacceptable – cracking down on the monks, arresting more and more political activists, and sentencing Aung San Suu Kyi to another 18 months under house arrest on trumped-up charges – but never finding ways of reducing them.

“With this change in policy, the U.S. will have more leverage, and not just rely on pressure,” Win Min, a Burmese academic at Chiang Mai University, told IPS. “It’s important to be able to talk directly to the junta, and tell them what they expect.”

“Direct engagement is very important, and more effective, I think,” said Nyan Win.

But so far the U.S. does not seem to be suggesting anything practical. State department officials are coy when questioned about what sort of contact and at what level was planned. Suggestions that senior U.S. diplomats, and even Clinton herself, might meet the Burmese prime minister himself when he is in New York have been dismissed. Privately, though, some government officials admit that at the moment anything is possible.

“If we (the U.S.) made any – were to make any adjustments going forward, it would be based on tangible progress by Burma,” a senior U.S. state department official told journalists after the policy change was announced. So far, the most concrete step seems to be the proposed appointment of special envoys by both countries to be responsible for taking the engagement process forward.

The change in the U.S. position has been overwhelmingly welcomed in the region. Singapore foreign minister George Yeo supported the move when he spoke at the U.N. “Singapore sees the army as being part of the problem but also as a necessary part of the solution,” he said. “What is required is a process of national reconciliation.”

For some analysts, the change in the U.S. policy will also give Washington more influence in Asia, which has largely protected Burma from sanctions and international pressure. “With this shift in policy towards talking with the region, the U.S. will find it can rally support around the Burma issue within Asia,” said Win Min. “In the past there has been a major divide between them, largely over the issue of the U.S. sanction policy – which all Asian countries oppose,” believing in a policy of engagement.

Over the past 21 years since the military seized power in a bloody coup, there have been frequent attempts to find ways to get the junta to respect human rights and introduce democratic change. In the past it was the United Nations and Asia that took the initiatives – especially ASEAN and Japan. Most of these have proved to be abject failures because the regime was not interested in engaging the outside world. They were happy with their isolation.

Things have changed now and Burma’s generals realise that they must open up. The U.S.’s policy shift may just be the incentive that helps produce real change in Burma. The first test will be whether the top generals can bite the bullet and free Aung San Suu Kyi in the near future – as that is what would be seen as a real sign of progress.

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