Archive for August, 2009

A Response – There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye

Was too much to ask a response to come from the White House or even elsewhere in the Senate?
There’s More to Senator Webb’s Burma Fizzle Than Meets the Eye

In today’s New York Times, Senator Webb makes his case for a new American policy on Burma. For someone so closely identified with opposition to sanctions, one would expect his alternative to be much bolder. After so much build up, is this it?

Senator Webb’s policy suggestions boil down to talking with the junta government, increasing humanitarian aid, and cooperation on the recovery of American World War II remains. Perhaps, he is only being realistic. In the current environment, when Congress has just unanimously approved and the President has signed extensions of sweeping sanctions, he has carefully identified areas where he has some prospect of success. No doubt, he may also be previewing – by design or intuition – the results of the Administration’s Burma policy review.

The problem with the Senator’s case is not the specific policy prescriptions he offers, but its faulty assumptions.

Assumption #1: Sanctions have failed; engagement will work.

It is demonstrably true that American sanctions have not brought about change in Burma. But the answer lies in building the necessary international consensus to pressure it, not abandoning the effort. Besides, engagement by Burma’s neighbors has been no more effective. In taking his lead from Burma’s neighbors on engagement, Senator Webb should understand that ASEAN’s engagement has failed for good reason; it was never intended to bring about democratic change Burma. That goal has always been its rationalization for doing business with an odious regime.

As for the Chinese, there is at least integrity in their position; it has never argued for engagement on the basis of bringing democratic change to Burma. But for that reason, Senator Webb is barking up the wrong Chinese tree – as, in fact, he acknowledges may be the case. The truth is the Chinese will never bring meaningful pressure to bear on the junta. They proved that with a veto in the Security Council in 2007. And they have proven it by watering down every statement the Security Council makes when called to act.

Assumption #2: Normalization with Vietnam and China are models for Burma policy.

Senator Webb is fond of citing normalization of economic and diplomatic relations with Vietnam as a precedent for engaging Burma. But there is a fundamental difference. Vietnam made a strategic decision in 1986 to reform its economy and open up to the world. Without this decision, the subsequent normalization could not have happened. It is the same regarding U.S. normalization with China. The Burmese junta has not made such a strategic decision. They reach out piece meal for means of securing their grip on power. That’s why they joined ASEAN in 1997. There was a time in the 1990s when the Burmese were open to foreign visitors with critical perspectives.

They are much more discerning nowadays. Senator Webb was granted his historic meeting with Than Shwe because the Senator is an opponent of current American policy and his presence could be used – as it was – to send a signal of regime stability to the long suffering people of Burma.

Assumption #3: The new Burmese constitution is a basis for engagement.

Senator Webb rightly rests much of his case on Burma’s 2010 elections. But by focusing on “what is possible” instead of “free and fair elections”, he leaves little doubt that what he intends is to accept the junta’s terms. That intention is not just a matter of speculation. He made it clear in Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell’s confirmation hearing when the Senator pressed for an endorsement of the Burmese sham constitution. And in his New York Times piece today, when he recites the flaws in the constitution, he fails to list the biggest problem – the bar on Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation.

He advises her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to participate in the elections despite this and despite the fact that the constitution is designed to ensure elections do not bring about a change in government. That is an extraordinarily tough call for them to make. Abandon the icon of the democracy movement, a Nobel Laureate, the inspiration of the Burmese people, to take part in a process that will validate an illegal government and relegate their 1990 victory to the dustbin of history. Who will they turn to then?

Assumption #4: American sanctions have given Chinese investment and interests a leg up.

Senator Webb, at his most admirable, is extremely worried about Chinese strategic interest in Southeast Asia. It is true that the Chinese are heavily involved in the Burmese economy and that they are using Burma for their own strategic purposes. But would permitting American investment change that? Not likely. Could the Burmese take American investment and still use Chinese investment to build mines, ports and pipelines to secure the flow of resources to China? Yes. In fact, they might find American investors to help. The only thing that will change China’s calculus is a change in the nature of the Burmese regime.

Throughout his Op-Ed, Senator Webb refers to Burma by its junta-designated name, “Myanmar.” That is certainly pleasing to the ears of the generals. In a microcosm it represents the problem with engagement. The NLD does not recognize the name “Myanmar”. The State Department through successive Administrations has refused to call it “Myanmar.” And Congress certainly doesn’t call it “Myanmar.”

But simply for the price of gaining a Burmese general’s ear, and nothing more, Senator Webb is willing to abide by the Burmese junta’s sensitivities. It is difficult to argue against increased humanitarian assistance – appropriately channeled through international NGOs and closely monitored for abuse – or cooperation to find remains of missing American airmen. It’s even difficult to argue against meeting with Burmese authorities under the right circumstances.

President Bush’s Administration did, and we do have diplomatic relations with Burma after all. (Senator Webb’s meetings in Burma in the wake of Suu Kyi’s conviction were decidedly not the right time.) But like changing the name we call it, these things are not going to elicit a response on the things Americans care about. It is certainly not the beginning of a road map to a normal US-Burma relationship.

More likely, if carried by Senator Webb’s assumptions, engagement will so invest America in the process of engagement itself that it will offer new slices off its current policy of “maximum pressure” just to keep it going, but with no real progress.

The North Koreans have mastered this game, and the Burmese are learning. What they have lacked is a playing partner. They have found one in Senator Webb. Let’s hope they do not find partners in President Obama and Secretary Clinton.


Senator Jim Webb

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been concerned for and following news of Myanmar for several months. This is an interesting post given all the recent news about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr. Yettaw. This really makes me wonder about his interview with San Suu Kyi.
We Can’t Afford to Ignore Myanmar



EIGHT years ago I visited Myanmar as a private citizen, traveling freely in the capital city of Yangon and around the countryside. This lush, breathtakingly beautiful nation was even then showing the strain of its severance from the outside world. I was a guest of an American businessman, and I understood the frustration and disappointment that he and others felt, knowing even then that tighter sanctions would soon drive them out of the country.

This month I became the first American political leader to visit Myanmar in 10 years, and the first-ever to meet with its reclusive leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, in the haunting, empty new capital of Naypyidaw. From there I flew to an even more patched-and-peeled Yangon, where I met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate who remains confined to her home. Among other requests, I asked Than Shwe to free her and allow her to participate in politics.

Leaving the country on a military plane with John Yettaw — an American who had been sentenced to seven years of hard labor for immigration offenses, and whose release I had also requested of Than Shwe — I was struck again by how badly the Burmese people need outside help. They are so hardened after decades of civil war and political stalemate that only an even-handed interlocutor can lift them out of the calcified intransigence that has damaged their lives and threatened the stability of Southeast Asia.

For more than 10 years, the United States and the European Union have employed a policy of ever-tightening economic sanctions against Myanmar, in part fueled by the military government’s failure to recognize the results of a 1990 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. While the political motivations behind this approach are laudable, the result has been overwhelmingly counterproductive. The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world.

Sanctions by Western governments have not been matched by other countries, particularly Russia and China. Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region.

According to the nonprofit group EarthRights International, at least 26 Chinese multinational corporations are now involved in more than 62 hydropower, oil, gas and mining projects in Myanmar. This is only the tip of the iceberg. In March, China and Myanmar signed a $2.9-billion agreement for the construction of fuel pipelines that will transport Middle Eastern and African crude oil from Myanmar to China. When completed, Chinese oil tankers will no longer be required to pass through the Straits of Malacca, a time-consuming, strategically vital route where 80 percent of China’s imported oil now passes.

If Chinese commercial influence in Myanmar continues to grow, a military presence could easily follow. Russia is assisting the Myanmar government on a nuclear research project. None of these projects have improved the daily life of the average citizen of Myanmar, who has almost no contact with the outside world and whose per capita income is among the lowest in Asia.

It would be wrong for the United States to lift sanctions on Myanmar purely on the basis of economic self-interest, or if such a decision were seen as a capitulation of our long-held position that Myanmar should abandon its repressive military system in favor of democratic rule. But it would be just as bad for us to fold our arms, turn our heads, and pretend that by failing to do anything about the situation in Myanmar we are somehow helping to solve it.

So what can and should be done?

First, we must focus on what is possible. The military government in Myanmar has committed itself to elections in 2010, as part of its announced “seven steps toward democracy.” Many point out that the Constitution approved last year in a plebiscite is flawed, since it would allow the military to largely continue its domination of the government, and that the approval process itself was questionable. The legislation to put the Constitution into force has yet to be drafted. The National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, has not agreed to participate in next year’s elections.

But there is room for engagement. Many Asian countries — China among them — do not even allow opposition parties. The National League for Democracy might consider the advantages of participation as part of a longer-term political strategy. And the United States could invigorate the debate with an offer to help assist the electoral process. The Myanmar government’s answer to such an offer would be revealing.

Second, the United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world. Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action.

The United States refused to talk to the Chinese until 1971, more than 20 years after the Communist takeover, and did not resume full diplomatic relations until 1979. And yet China, with whom we seem inextricably tied both as a business partner and a strategic competitor, has no democracy and has never held a national election.

The Hanoi government agreed to internationally supervised elections for Vietnam in 1973, as a result of the Paris peace talks; Washington did not raise this as a precondition to furthering relations. As someone who has worked hard to build a bridge between Hanoi and America’s strongly anticommunist Vietnamese community, I believe the greatest factor in creating a more open society inside Vietnam was the removal of America’s trade embargo in 1994.

Third, our government leaders should call on China to end its silence about the situation in Myanmar, and to act responsibly, in keeping with its role as an ascending world power. Americans should not hold their collective breaths that China will give up the huge strategic advantage it has gained as a result of our current policies. But such a gesture from our government would hold far more sway in world opinion than has the repeated but predictable condemnation of Myanmar’s military government.

Finally, with respect to reducing sanctions, we should proceed carefully but immediately. If there is reciprocation from the government of Myanmar in terms of removing the obstacles that now confront us, there would be several ways for our two governments to move forward. We could begin with humanitarian projects. We might also seek cooperation on our long-held desire to recover the remains of World War II airmen at crash sites in the country’s north.

Our ultimate goal, as it always has been, should be to encourage Myanmar to become a responsible member of the world community, and to end the isolation of its people so that they can live in economic prosperity, under an open political system.

Jim Webb is a Democratic senator from Virginia.

Goodbye Little Garden

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