February 19, 2005

Time for the United States to Engage

By – Saw Kapi & Naw Show Ei Ei Tun

In June 2003, a bipartisan task force on Burma, sponsored by the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations, and chaired by Mathea Falco, President of Drug Strategies, released a comprehensive and timely report titled, "Burma: Time for Change." First, it offers a thorough observation of the dire realities Burma is facing today, ranging from social and economic depravation and ongoing human rights violations to cross-borders issues, all of which result from the political stalemate in the country.Second, it provides concrete policy recommendations for the United States to act upon in key areas such as humanitarian assistance, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, narcotics control policy, refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, or IDPs.

In a nutshell, the report affirms that the situation in Burma is one of deep desperation and that the US has yet to use the policy instruments available to it to effect change in a country that has been ruled by one of the world’s longest serving military dictatorships. The report finds that Burma has a serious health crisis, particularly its alarming HIV/AIDS epidemic that is the worst in the region after Cambodia. To address this problem, the report suggests, the US should provide humanitarian assistance to Burma, not directly to the ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, nor its Ministry of Health, but through local and international NGOs working in Burma. If the ruling junta commits itself to seriously addressing the country’s dangerous health crisis, it is possible that the US will choose to open the door to cooperate with the regime in this area.

While the report suggests that more severe economic sanctions on the junta are necessary, it implicitly recognizes that sanctions alone are not enough to push for a democratic transition. Although the intentions behind economic sanctions are undeniably good ones, the impact of sanctions does not fall exclusive upon the military regime, nor is the impact entirely positive. The bottom line is that in order to change Burma, the US needs to look beyond sanctions and broaden its strategies. In doing so, Burma’s unique geopolitical situation and recent political developments must be taken into account.

The report recommends, quite strongly, that the US should "redouble its efforts with the governments of China, Japan and the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries—particularly Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia—to press the State Peace and Development Council to work with the National League for Democracy and ethnic nationalities toward political transition in Burma." This recommendation comes at a timely point in political developments and should be given serious consideration by the US.Since the release of the report, there have been some notable developments inside Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt announced his seven-step road map to "democratic transition," with the resumption of the National Convention being the first step. Recently, the Karen National Union, or KNU, one of the largest ethnic resistance forces still fighting against the regime, sent a high level delegation to Rangoon to discuss a possible ceasefire agreement with the junta. At the meeting, both sides agreed to halt the fighting, and the issues of IDPs and Karen refugees were discussed. The process is ongoing and both sides have agreed to continue the talks.

The junta’s failure to deliver on its promises in the past makes it difficult for the opposition and the international community to believe the regime is sincere in its promises this time. It must be noted, nonetheless, that Burma’s political transition has at least been regionalized, if not totally internationalized.Senior Thai military officials have played a significant role in persuading KNU leaders to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with the junta, while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai have worked directly with their Burmese counterparts in organizing an international forum to discuss the "road map" in Bangkok. The forum, otherwise known as the "Bangkok Process," was attended by ten countries including Australia, Japan and China. Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung attended the meeting despite concerns over international criticism, and explained, albeit vaguely and with no reference to a timeframe, how the junta intends to implement its seven-point road map for democracy. He also pledged to resume the National Convention that will eventually lead to the drafting of a new national constitution. This could be interpreted as recognition by the Thai, KNU and junta leaders of the need to find a solution to Burma’s political problems though regional efforts.

In light of recent developments, the recommendation for increased cooperation between the US and Thailand in providing cross-border humanitarian assistance is timely. Despite repeated rebuffs from the junta to allow international intervention in what it considers to be internal affairs, international monitoring and cross-border assistance will become extremely crucial should a deal be struck for the resettlement of an estimated 145,000 Karen IDPs. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees into Thailand, India and Bangladesh, as a result of the prolonged fighting inside the country, has become a regional concern. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma is no longer an internal issue that can be contained in the country; it has become so endemic, reaching far beyond Burma’s borders that it threatens serious long term ramifications on the region’s economy.

In brief, Burma’s treacherous situation warrants an immediate and concerted response from the international community. In as much as it is time for change in Burma, it is now time for the US to take concrete steps and intensify efforts to critically engage Burma’s military regime and its neighboring countries.

Note: Saw Kapi is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Education and Development Studies, and Naw Show Ei Ei Tun is a former economics student living in Washington, DC.

Irrawaddy, March 19, 2004

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