Prospects of Political Reforms in Myanmar

A recent trip I took to Myanmar (Burma) provided an occasion to reflect on some large and small issues in U.S. foreign policy, and to think about what works and what doesn’t. My trip came shortly before it was publicly revealed that President Obama will visit Myanmar in the second half of November, which will highlight Myanmar’s reform and opening to the West.

Questions, and tentative answers:

1) Is Myanmar seriously on the path to reform?

So it would seem. The signs were abundant on my trip. The senior officials I met spoke convincingly about their commitment to democratic reform. One Minister positively mentioned democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation in a recent government-sponsored workshop. Newspapers published lively debates, virtually free of the all-pervasive censorship of the last two decades. Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Aung San, the founder of modern Burma, could be seen on the walls of village restaurants. A large U.S. official human rights delegation visited in October and met with top Myanmar officials. Ordinary people spoke of the profound change in atmosphere, and of their willingness to speak out on matters where there was fear and silence only recently. This change in mood follows a series of steps disassembling key foundations of the repressive structure of Myanmar’s military government – release of hundreds of political prisoners, legalization of the opposition political party National League for Democracy, legalization of peaceful demonstrations, and revival of talks with rebellious ethnic groups.

2) What is Aung San Suu Kyi’s role and what is she doing?

Aung San Suu Kyi remains unequivocally the most popular political figure in Myanmar. She and her party decisively won the by-elections in April 2012 after the end of her years of confinement. There is reason to believe she and her party will win national elections in 2015 and be in a position to form a government. In preparation, she is showing a strongly pragmatic streak, reaching out to officials in the government, bonding with President Thein Sein and speaking positively of them at her Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. There is grumbling in the overseas human rights community at her apparent embrace of the compromises of national politics. She is encountering the inevitable second-guessing that accompanies the decision to cease to become an icon and to become a political actor, just as Lech Walesa endured second-guessing when he worked with General Jaruzelski in Communist Poland in the early 1980’s.

3) Did anyone in the West see this coming?

Perhaps somewhere someone in the West foresaw Myanmar’s turn toward reform, but the conventional wisdom certainly did not. Asia analysts inside and outside the government, editorialists, and human rights advocates alike all scorned Myanmar’s installation of a civilian government in April 2011 and its elections last year as fraudulent, saw little political significance in Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and projected a grim political future.

4) How did it happen?

There are many retrospective theories, none fully satisfactory. One important factor seems to have been a generalized desire to escape Myanmar’s growing dependence on China by establishing the basis for renewed relations with the West. Myanmar historically is a fiercely independent country, having for example quit the Nonaligned Movement because it felt it was too aligned. Resentment against the Chinese presence, and its enterprises dominating the extractive industries while providing little employment for Myanmar nationals, runs deep. Some Burmese experts, including Thant Myint-U, the grandson of former UN Secretary General U Thant, presciently wrote of a new mood among the younger Myanmar officer corps, who have played a central role in spurring reform. Human rights groups point to the effect of years of sanctions in persuading the leadership it needed to take a new course. Advocates of engagement credit ASEAN with helping to knock down the generals’ resistance to the international community. Within Myanmar, the aging senior generals seem to have confidence they will not be held accountable for past repressive behavior, and the officer corps generally is comfortable that its special role in Myanmar politics will be preserved under a constitution that gives them a privileged and outsized role. This sense of security among the military old guard may have made them more willing to accept the current political opening.

5) What was the role of the U.S. Government?

From 1990 to 2008, successive administrations, pushed by the Congress, piled sanction upon sanction on Myanmar – bans on new investment, bans on imports, and designation of people and companies for financial sanctions. Under George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush played a large role in identifying the regime as a target for further isolation. In his inauguration speech, President Obama offered to reach out a hand to adversaries “if (they) are willing to unclench (their) fist. “ That policy has produced little in the way of positive results around the world, except in the case of Myanmar. The Administration decided early to open a channel of diplomatic engagement with the Myanmar leadership, conducted on the U.S. side by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, laying out the agenda for political reform and nonproliferation by Myanmar that would induce sanctions relaxation on the U.S. side. The expressed willingness of the U.S. government on an authoritative level to offer a road map to good relations gave the Myanmar government an incentive, and confidence, to proceed. The decision of the Obama administration, in coordination with allies in Europe and Australia, to significantly ease sanctions earlier this year should provide a further spur to both desperately needed economic development and political reform.

6) Are there broader lessons with regard to sanctions as a tool to change behavior of bad actors?

Sanctions are sometimes the only effective way for the U.S., and the international community, to signal the unacceptability of a regime’s behavior. Such was the case for a long time with Myanmar. So imposition of sanctions was appropriate.

But sanctions, it must be remembered, are not an end in themselves. As the popular song goes, you’ve got to know when to hold and when to fold. There is invariably an irresistible momentum in Washington to continue on the sanctions path whether or not it gives any indication of leading to positive outcome. Human rights groups sometimes see sanctions against malefactors as the measure of sound and moral government policy, and publicize the violations of dictatorial regimes to rally public support and funding around campaigns that have sanctions as their end product. The Congress wants to show that it is doing something, whether effective or not, and sanctioning dictatorial regimes becomes seen as a way to demonstrate its virtue. This dynamic is evident, for example, in the case of Cuba. We have now had sanctions in effect for over 50 years toward Cuba, and their support among American political actors has in no way been weakened by their manifest strengthening of the Castro brothers’ hold on power. Everyone – the U.S. political class, the private advocacy groups, the Castros – seems happy with this state of affairs, with the exception of the Cuban people who are its victims. Policy toward Myanmar was developing along the Cuban model, but happily it has now diverged from that path.

7) Is the U.S. Government well structured to deal with issues like Myanmar?

Since the Carter Presidency, there has been a growing infrastructure of offices and officials with responsibilities purely for human rights issues, divorced from broader matters of foreign policy and national security. These offices have evolved into the voice of the human rights NGO community within the U.S. government, frequently serving as a megaphone for the human rights NGOs, seeking their input to State Department human rights reports, and fighting for the specific measures proposed by the NGOs. In some ways, this is not radically different from the way in which other constituencies are represented in the foreign policy apparatus, e.g. business through the State Department’s Economic and Business Bureau. But the identification of the human rights offices with their constituency tends to be more single-minded (note: The current Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael Posner, in fact has escaped this straitjacket and acted as a strong advocate for human rights but with a focus on practical, not symbolic, results and a nuanced awareness of broad foreign policy objectives).

When I served as Senior Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the transition of U.S. policy toward Myanmar between 2009 to 2011, I chaired a number of interagency meetings (called Interagency Policy Committees) on Myanmar. Normally, meetings of this kind are attended by one senior representative of each agency, accompanied by one more junior person. In the case of Myanmar, no less than seven offices from the State Department – the East Asia Bureau, the Human Rights Bureau, the US Mission to the UN, the State Department liaison to the US Mission to the UN, the US Mission to international organizations in Geneva, the US Ambassador for War Crimes, and the Refugees Bureau – attended. Agencies at such meetings are expected to speak with one voice. With seven offices attending, all seeking to have their voices heard, it was difficult to impossible for that to happen. Some of them were aggressively seeking creation of a Commission of Inquiry to look into Myanmar regime war crimes, at precisely the moment when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from captivity and there were hints of softening of repression. Only by empowering the Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific to speak for the State Department and to conduct diplomacy without a group from his building looking over his shoulder was the Administration able to pursue a coherent, and ultimately successful policy.

8) What is the best way to deal with issues involving bad actors like the Myanmar regime?

The human rights NGOs have an indispensable role in tracking human rights abuses, highlighting publicly the offenders and offenses, and mobilizing the international community to censure them. This is one of the proud features of a democratic society with a conscience, the activities of these groups of private actors with a strong commitment to justice even in obscure corners of the globe and their determination to make victims of injustice heard. Not only should we not ignore or marginalize such groups; we should celebrate them, and magnify and amplify their role.

The role of the U.S. government needs to be different. It should not ghettoize human rights issues. Nor should it encourage the creation and proliferation of offices that result in the drawing of lines between officials, all of whom should have as their top priority our national security and foreign policy success as well as a strong commitment to human rights. There should not be a small group of people anointed to express human rights concerns, acting as representatives of the NGO community, while officials with responsibility for national security and foreign policy fall into a reflexive response of marginalizing human rights in response. Our current structure frequently produces formalized battles over countries that are human rights bad actors. In such cases officials with broad national security responsibilities tend to roll over human rights when dealing with countries of major national security concern, like China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, while deferring to the human rights offices on countries of lesser foreign policy importance, like Myanmar. This is not a framework built for success or sound policy development. Our government needs to sensitize our top national security officials to the need to build human rights issues more effectively into policy, while reminding the human rights offices that they too need to have a commitment to broad U.S. national security goals, not just the advancement of a virtuous NGO agenda.