Burma Turns a Cold Shoulder to the US

The renewed dialogue between the US and the Burmese regime has attracted quite a bit of publicity. But these talks have yet to produce any tangible results.

This shouldn't surprise anybody. Off the record, even American diplomats admit that the talks with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) are about little more than the dialogue itself. There are no offers on the table. The US is sticking to its policy of demanding democratic change.

In the meantime, President Barack Obama has renewed the US sanctions against Burma. So, in reality, there is no real news on the "Western Front."

What the West needs to realize is that the Burmese regime is not going to bow down publicly. The army in Burma stays in power mainly because it projects a strong image of unity and ruthlessness. Internally, this serves the regime well, because it keeps the Burmese people afraid and off the streets. In the psychological framework of the generals there is no chance they will ever voluntarily show signs of weakness. Junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe would lose face and his strongman image would crumble if he granted the US the concessions it wants.

There is another factor undermining the Burma policies of the West. The generals are not only politicians, they are businessmen, too. The SPDC doesn't operate on a basis of trust. It wants rock-solid proof. In its dealings with China and India, the SPDC is used to operating on a tit-for-tat basis. Both parties are clear about what they want and what they will supply.

This deal-making aspect is lacking in the dialogue with the US. The Americans want something but they are vague about what reward, if any, awaits an agreement. This irritates the regime instead of softening it up.

The European Union is also lost in a counter-productive Burma policy. Like the US, the European countries have installed rigid diplomatic and economic sanctions. But to what avail? Hardly anybody believes nowadays that the sanctions have produced anything positive.

A couple of weeks ago, even the Dutch Foreign Secretary Maxime Verhagen – known to be a hardliner on Burma issues – admitted in a speech that the sanctions haven't delivered. But he added quickly that he thought it was not an option to remove the sanctions, probably because it would rob the EU of the only card it has in its poker game with the regime.

It looks as if the EU has painted itself into a corner, too.

The counterproductive policies of the EU and the US are all the more sad since important processes are well underway in Burma. Exiled opposition forces may dismiss the elections as a sham, but the fact remains that the new constitution and the elections offer some freedoms and a level of participation that was sorely missing in recent decades.

Instead of marginalizing itself, the West should do everything within its powers to improve the democratic nature of the elections. The old approach hasn't worked out, so a new one is needed. And quickly.

Two things are important. First, there should be a willingness to deal with the regime. Yes, the SPDC is a rogue government. But currently it is the only government in town. If anybody is sincere in the need to achieve anything in Burma, deals are inevitable. The sanctions can still be used as bargaining chips. Better still is to make the first move. Offer something and be clear about the nature of the "reward" — and build on that.

Of course, this is shaky ground because for the West, with all its democratic checks and balances and a past of morally inspired Burma policies, it is hard to start whistling a completely new tune. But time is running out. The elections are casting their shadow ahead, despite the regime being unwilling to announce a date yet. So better hurry.

The second important thing is not to publicly make a numbers game out of it. Let the regime have its deal and receive the credit for the softer line it takes. It's the result that counts. The minute the West makes it seem as if the generals have bowed down, trust will be shattered and it will be back to square one.

What the West needs now is deal-making and diplomacy by stealth. If that means taking flak and biting the bullet so be it.

The Irrawaddy

Adam Selene is a journalist based in Bangkok.