Wednesday, October 3, 2007

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How to deal with Myanmar

Michael Green and Derek Mitchell have an unbelievably timely piece in the next issue of Foreign Affairs that discusses how to deal with Myanmar. The piece is oddly framed, however:

[N]either sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed the former Nigerian diplomat and UN official Ibrahim Gambari to continue the organization's heretofore fruitless dialogue with the junta about reform. The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Congress have fought over control of U.S. Burma policy, leading to bitterness and polarization on both sides. Although the UN Security Council now does talk openly about Burma as a threat to international peace and security, China and Russia have vetoed attempts to impose international sanctions. And while key members of the international community continue to undermine one another, the junta, which renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, continues its brutal and dangerous rule.

Regimes like the SPDC do not improve with age; therefore, the Burma problem must be addressed urgently. All parties with a stake in its resolution need to adjust their positions and start coordinating their approach to the problem. Although this may seem like an unlikely proposition, it has more potential today than ever before. Burma's neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.

So Green and Mitchell aren't saying that sanctions and incentives don't work -- they're saying that uncoordinated sanctions and incentives won't work.

Their proposal:

[A] new multilateral initiative on Burma cannot be based on a single, uniform approach. Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy. To succeed, the region's major players will need to work together.

Bringing them together will require the United States' leadership. One way to proceed would be for Washington to lead the five key parties -- ASEAN, China, India, Japan, and the United States -- in developing a coordinated international initiative and putting forth a public statement of the principles that underlie their vision for a stable and secure Burma. The five partners should develop a road map with concrete goalposts that lays out both the benefits that the SPDC would enjoy if it pursued true political reform and national reconciliation and the costs it would suffer if it continued to be intransigent. The road map should present the SPDC with an international consensus on how Burma's situation affects international stability and the common principles on which the international community will judge progress in the country. One purpose of such a road map would be to reassure the SPDC of regional support for Burma's territorial integrity and security and demonstrate the five parties' commitment to provide, under the appropriate conditions, the assistance necessary to ensure a better future for the country. This would be an important guarantee given the Burmese military's traditional paranoia.

Contact groups like this do make some sense when dealing with pariah regimes. Their utility is twofold -- they make it easier to present a common face to the undesirable regime, and they also reassure each of the contact group's members that another member of the contact group is not cutting a deal behind their back.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan on 10.03.07 at 08:25 AM


The biggest problem I've got with this approach is that it goes against what Burma's elected leadership and opposition groups want. They want sanctions. We have no more right to overrule their approach than SLORC does.

posted by: Brian Schmidt on 10.03.07 at 08:25 AM [permalink]

The contact group, buttressed by the kind of stylized rhetoric some international affairs commentators seem to fall back on when they don't really know what to recommend, would have potential if all its putative members had similar or at least compatible interests.

They don't seem to, very honestly. Repression -- especially televised repression -- in Burma represents a human rights outrage in Washington, a potential threat of refugees in Bangkok, but a mere public relations problem in Beijing. Most of the commentary I've seen about the importance of coordinating policy toward Burma presumes that China is bound to recognize that the current regime there does not serve Chinese interests. I wonder whether, if that were so, it would be the current regime.

I would prefer myself an American policy based on frank public assessments of the situation in Burma and support for our allies in the region. The objective would be to establish American reliability, not our good intentions. If loftier or more ambitious objectives, including objectives involving a change of government in Burma, seemed attainable I would consider efforts to attain them, but they don't right now.

posted by: Zathras on 10.03.07 at 08:25 AM [permalink]

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