What to do about Burma

With years of sanctions following years of sanctions that have had little effect on Burma's leaders, the US government has apparently shifted to a new policy with the creation by the Congress of a post for policy chief for Burma to increase pressure on the junta.

That was followed by the announcement by the White House on November 10 of the nomination of Michael Green, who has served as a senior director for Asian Affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, to the position.

According to the legislation passed by the Congress, the policy chief is to consult with the governments of China, India, Thailand and Japan, members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the European Union to coordinate international strategy to see if they can move the junta into a more reasonable stance than its hard-line refusal to allow the Burmese even a modicum of democracy.

Whether this maneuver brings vigor to the Burmese democratic movement is a question remains to be seen, however. Green, long involved with the Burmese situation, should have noticed the quandary over the Burmese political imbroglio, especially the futility of conflicting approaches by the international community. Sanctions have little impact on the military regime due to engagements by neighboring countries, notably China, India and members of ASEAN. Nor have popular uprisings had any effect. They have been tasted twice, in 1988 and in 2007. Both events were brutally crushed by the military with force.

There is no doubt about the U.S. sanctions hurting the military generals and also the general public. Had there been a coordinated international approach, Burma could have been different today. It must be difficult for the US government to abandon its traditional policy of isolating the Burmese generals and start engaging with them. But they have to realize that sanctions alone are not effective in resolving Burma’s crisis when there is engagement on the other end.

While sanctions are in place, the new envoy can start initiating a ‘carrot and stick’ policy by working together with key international players. The one similar to the North Korean six-party talks model which involved United States, North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea should be given emphasis on Burma. The hard work of the US in North Korea has now paid off with North Korea being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorists, and in return, North Korea promised to shut down and dismantle its nuclear facilities.

It was not only the stick that worked but also the carrot. The U.S. offered energy and food assistance to the North Korean leadership. A similar initiative could convince Burma’s military generals to come to the negotiating table. The Burmese talks, also a six-party negotiation involving the United States, European Union, ASEAN, China, India, and Burma should be initiated. In the beginning, the junta and some other countries might resist the proposal, but we need to remember that the North Korean talks were also initially not supported by all parties.

Now that the UN Secretary General is heavily involved in the process, the US could garner stronger support from the international community. Without such a move from the U.S., Ban Ki-moon’s 'Group of Friends of the Secretary General on Myanmar' will yield little.

The most effective UN intervention would happen if the Security Council were decide to take action. This scenario is bleak with China and Russia vetoing the move, and likely to do it again if the Burma issue were to come up on the Council’s agenda.

The creation of a U.S. special envoy and policy chief for Burma is a welcome move. With this new position coming into place, the U.S. should start moving beyond imposing sanctions.

Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).