The Cable

Burmese junta: Change you can believe in?

The Obama administration is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reengagement with Burma, and the State Department is busily preparing a host of new rewards for the ruling junta if and when their promises of reform ever become a reality. "We’re going to meet their action with action," Derek Mitchell, the new special representative and ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reengagement with Burma, and the State Department is busily preparing a host of new rewards for the ruling junta if and when their promises of reform ever become a reality.

"We’re going to meet their action with action," Derek Mitchell, the new special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, told The New York Times. "If they take steps, we will take steps to demonstrate that we are supportive of the path to reform."

But is Burma actually on the path to reform? The main pieces of evidence that change is afoot are that the new government, led by President Thein Sein, paused construction of a huge dam being built with China, which would have displaced thousands and wrecked the local environment, released 220 prisoners, and promised to release thousands more. But those changes alone aren’t going to convince anyone in the administration — or Congress, for that matter — that the government is really committed to wholesale reform.

While the Obama administration sees some signs of change in Burma, it has no idea why they are occurring and has communicated that the United States will only ease sanctions after Burmese reforms. Administration officials are also trying their best to be clear eyed about the possibility that the junta is only trying to appease the international community, and has no intention of instituting real, actual change.

The Cable sat down with a senior State Department official to flesh out the administration’s new approach to Burma, and gauge whether the Obama team really thinks that the Burmese junta is changing its tune.The official said that State has  actually taken several steps in planning exactly what the United States is prepared to do if and when the junta takes steps to increase democracy and respect for human rights.

"We’re far along," said the State Department official. "We’re thinking about it very actively and we have some ideas of things we might do if we see the concrete steps."

The administration’s strategy is to focus on steps the administration can take without needing to go through Congress, which is always skeptical of the Junta and never eager to loosen sanctions. For example, a ban on Burmese imports was implemented through a legislative maneuver, and would therefore need congressional action to remove. A ban on investment in Burma, however, was made by executive order, so the administration could remove that on its own.

"We would be consulting with Congress on the ideas that we have," the official said. "You can’t have a perfect roadmap because there are many different scenarios to their actions and we’ll calibrate it accordingly. So that’s the art rather than the science to all of this."

Banking sanctions on Burma were authorized through Congress, but the sanctions placed on individual Burmese officials are an executive prerogative, so the administration could remove holds on specific Burmese officials who make positive steps.  

The administration is still grappling with what it can do about removing restrictions on lending to Burma by international financial institutions, a key aspiration of the Burmese government. The New York Times reported that the administration is "considering waiving some restrictions on trade and financial assistance and lifting prohibitions on assistance by global financial institutions, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."

We’re told that the administration isn’t quite there yet. Rather, officials are conducting an assessment of the conditions on the ground as to what would be needed as a precursor to considering waiving restrictions. For close observers of the Burma issue, that’s a small but important distinction.

The administration is also being careful not to get ahead of reformers on the ground, specifically Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

The official noted that the administration has already provided some carrots to the Burmese. It invited Burma to be an observer in the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is the U.S. effort to deepen ties with certain Southeast Asian countries. It eased travel restrictions on Burmese officials so that Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin could come to Washington last month and visit the State Department.

There is a short and clear list of things the Obama administration has told junta leaders would constitute action deserving of reciprocal action on the part of the United States. They are to release political prisoners, amend the political party law to allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party to run in the next elections, and stop violence against ethnic minorities in Burma’s rural areas.

The official said that, despite a feeling of political change in the urban areas of Burma, government violence against civilians near Burma’s borders is actually getting worse. And there is still the unresolved issue of Burma’s relationship with North Korea, which may include missile transfers and nuclear weapons cooperation.

"The ceasefires have been violated and there is continued military aggression and credible reports of abuses, including against women and children, that come out, which is typical of the past in Burma," the official said.

And what if the Burmese don’t actually reform or even backslide on their progress? Is the administration willing to use the sticks — including additional sanctions?

"We would look at everything…. It’s fair to say we would be looking at that if things reverse," the official said.

Special Representative Mitchell’s office, created in this year, is made up of just him and one assistant. He sits inside the offices of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau at State, but he reports directly up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has responsibility for coordinating the entire interagency policy on Burma.

Burma experts believe the new office is useful, and see Mitchell as the right man for the job. But Burma watchers are also wary that the cautious optimism of the administration doesn’t turn into naiveté.

"There’s a lot of hype right now about everything is changing in Burma," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "There’s always a bureaucratic impulse to believe that positive change is happening in situations where a lot of U.S. diplomatic effort has been expended."

"That’s the danger that there’s so much positive rhetoric out there that the Burmese will think, aha, we don’t actually have to do these things, all we have to do is talk about them," Malinowski said.

The State Department official said the administration was well aware of that risk, and was making sure the Burmese knew that they would have to implement real reforms to renew their relationship with the United States.

"I think [Burmese leaders] recognize that folks are waiting and see what’s going to happen. People are restraining themselves from assuming that individual moves are somehow representative of something fundamentally different," the official said.

The other main administration officials involved in U.S. Burma policy are Adam Szubin, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Senior Director Dan Russel and Director Colin Willet in the NSC’s Asia team, NSC’s Senior Director Samantha Power on human rights, East Asia Pacific Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and Deputy Assistant Secretary Joe Yun, and Southeast Asia Office Director Patrick Murphy at State.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola