The One Place Where Washington Can Make a Difference

Burma's democratic transition is running off the rails. Obama and Kerry can help to bring it back on track.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Lately, Washington doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to intervening in the affairs of other countries. Obama’s minimalist engagement in Syria and Ukraine appears ineffectual. With the gradual return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq’s looming descent into sectarian chaos, America’s two grand projects of the last decade loom as failures. Not far away, Israel’s offensive in Gaza hints at the unraveling of yet another U.S.-backed peace plan.

Yet there is one part of the world where the United States has a chance to shape events for the better: The tentative democratic opening in Burma is in trouble. And for once Washington is uniquely positioned to bring its diplomatic weight to bear for the better.

Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama are scheduled to visit the country — Kerry this week, Obama in November. (In the photo above, Burmese monks hold a sign to welcome President Obama during his first visit in 2012.)

The visits come at a crucial moment. Key reform processes have stalled — particularly whenever they seem to threaten the military’s control of power. Unless the Burmese government can pass constitutional amendments and broker agreements that lock armed resistance groups into a non-violent political process, the structural problems that gave rise to uprisings in 1988 and 2007 and the continuing civil war will persist. The former regime will maintain control under the guise of democratic reform, and the international community will have played most of its cards without gaining much real change in return.

Starting in 2012, the government of President Thein Sein, a former general, has lifted press censorship, granted freedom of assembly, and signed initial ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups involved the country’s civil war. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed — most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and champion of democracy, who was released from house arrest and elected to parliament. A lively parliament has embarked on an ambitious program of legislative reform.

The United States can fairly claim some reward. Burma’s desire to pursue democratic and economic opening was influenced in no small part by the old guard’s recognition that its enforced international isolation had engendered economic stagnation and subservience to China. The U.S. stood ready to gain a foothold at the Western flank of its widely heralded Asian pivot. Washington responded by suspending many of the sanctions it had implemented against the military regime, re-establishing diplomatic ties, and making generous developmental assistance pledges.

In retrospect, the achievements of 2012 were all relatively soft targets. They generated good headlines, but actually did little to challenge the fundamental interests of those in power. When the reforms have actually threatened the position of the elite, the government has instinctively reverted to its old ways, renewing the policy of throwing dissidents in jail and clamping down on critical media outlets.

The promises made in the initial ceasefires with ethnic armed groups have largely gone unfulfilled, while in the country’s north, the army has continued a series of abuse-ridden offensives designed to secure its strategic interests in resource-rich areas bordering China. In Rakhine State and elsewhere, unwillingness to protect the rights and lives of vulnerable minorities has been an ugly feature of the transition.

The heady optimism of 2012 seems distant now. Since then, those who truly wield power have shown little willingness to allow the fundamental changes in the structure and exercise of power desired by Burma’s democratic and ethnic opposition. Without these amendments, the reform process is at best stunted, and at worst a ploy to fool a naïve international audience.

A reinvigorated constitutional reform process is crucial to getting the reform process back on track. The 2008 constitution ensures military control of the executive and legislative branches of government, bars Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, and fails to recognize the rights-based and power-sharing aspirations at the heart of Burma’s civil war. Addressing these deficits is absolutely essential for the transition, but looks unlikely under the current parliamentary committee review process, which is dominated by military representatives.

A successful transition would also require a resolution to the country’s continuing civil war. The state and Burma’s non-state ethnic armed groups are currently negotiating a political agreement — the nationwide ceasefire — which seeks in tandem to formally end all hostilities while formalizing a longer term process to resolve fundamental power, resource, and rights-based disagreements. To establish a sustainable peace, Burma’s old guard must recognize, at least in principle, the possibility of devolving power and resources to non-state actors within a new, possibly federal state structure.

During their upcoming visits to Burma, Kerry and Obama should focus on achieving these benchmarks of progress on constitutional reform and the peace process. There are reasons to believe it has the leverage.

The United States has withheld more of its cards than most of Burma’s development partners. Unlike the European Union, the United Kingdom, and others, the United States has refused to partner with Burma’s government, putting it in a better position to exert pressure on the government. Unlike other development partners, the United States is not risking any of its existing programs or investments by being critical, and can still use the possibility of closer ties to incentivize "good behavior." It also maintains a relatively strict sanctions regime, which if effectively targeted or re-imposed can still impact the interests of key figures blocking the transition.

At the same time, Washington has opened up avenues of engagement with the Burmese military, giving it closer access to the conservative power structure. The United States could, for example, offer opportunities for non-combat training in U.S. military staff colleges in exchange for the government’s commitment to withdraw from contested areas of Kachin state, where the civil war has continued even as other regions have concluded ceasefire agreements.

Engaging rather than isolating Burma’s conservative leaders is the best way to change the deeply held belief that devolving power threatens the security and integrity of the state. The people cannot afford to wait another 60 years for such thoughts to dawn independently.

Kerry and Obama’s visits to Burma in August and November will come at an auspicious time. By promoting changes to the constitution before the elections, the United States could help Burma foster a truly competitive democratic environment for the first time in half a century. Furthermore, if the United States can persuade the military to cease offensive action and agree to a national dialogue framework, it can help to ensure that power-sharing reforms survive beyond the next electoral cycle. An end to the civil war is possible.

Perhaps most importantly, Kerry and Obama’s public assessments of Burma’s transition will provide highly visible international and domestic barometers of the country’s progress. Rightful condemnations will make other donors’ myopia to the derailing of the transition less tenable. Unlike some other countries, the United States is not yet so economically invested in Burma’s opening that it can rationalize turning a blind eye. Taking a firm stance at this pivotal moment will deny the regime the international legitimacy it still craves — and give Burma’s people a reason to hope that the world has not been duped, and that real change is still possible.

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