If the U.S. hopes to improve trade and investment opportunities in Southeast Asia and take advantage of recent reform movements in countries like Myanmar, it ought to drop its vocal criticisms of the region's human rights practices.
That is not to say that human rights violations do not occur and that the country should ignore them. But the reality is that many Southeast Asian countries lack the institutional capacity necessary for enforcing internationally-backed human rights standards, and the U.S.'s moral evangelizing only threatens to push these states closer to regional powerhouse China.
With its current strategy, the U.S. is not only failing to meet its human rights objectives, but simultaneously losing economic opportunities and political leverage for reform in the region.
Take Myanmar, the only Southeast Asian state listed by the U.N. as having "Low Human Development," and whose government still summarily subjects ethnic minority groups to abuse and exploitation. For years, the U.S. has regularly condemned crackdowns in Myanmar on minority groups, religious persecution, and suppression of dissident viewpoints.
This weekend, however, Myanmar's government is showing real efforts at reform by holding parliamentary by-elections that include former state prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. It's likely these elections will be fraught with disagreements and even tampering, but it provides a chance for the U.S. to engage Myanmar in dialogue, rather than doing the same old proselytizing.
Even in Southeast Asian countries not run by a military junta, America's vocal criticisms seldom result in greater respect for human rights. They also have the knock-on effect of emboldening hawkish Southeast Asian military conservatives to pursue relations with China, whose foreign policy is governed by a policy of strict non-interference. The work of more moderate officials in the region, in tune with global human rights norms, is therefore made more challenging.
U.S. criticisms warranted but unhelpful
China succeeds where the U.S. fails because of human nature: people seldom like being told what to do, particularly in post-colonial, post-Vietnam-American War Southeast Asia.
The U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia, unlike that of the Chinese, is recent. Yet while America's conflict with Viet Nam remains fresh in the minds of Southeast Asians, people are much less fearful of America's relatively transparent foreign policy than China's opaque internal workings, as well as its geographic proximity.
But Southeast Asian governments still welcome China's offers for assistance because this assistance comes in the form of financial support with few requirements toward accountability. China provides the cash, and then quickly and efficiently implements its projects in spite of potential negative social and environmental impacts.
Look for example at Cambodia's ongoing Boeung Kak Lake project, where a lake at the center of Phnom Penh was filled with sand, making way for an upscale housing development. In spite of mass displacement and environmental destruction, the project proceeded with Chinese financial backing. Hu Jintao is in Cambodia this week to further cement ties with the country.
Inconsistent policy application, insufficient enforcement
The U.S. suffers from an uneven application of its policies in the Southeast Asian region, coupled with limited enforcement mechanisms. For an effective human rights policy, countries must feel that violations will negatively impact trade relations.
But in Viet Nam, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that as Viet Nam "systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly," the overall U.S.–Viet Nam relationship actually "continues to grow closer."
The U.S. government's accountability office is not fooled by the rhetoric either. The GAO found that the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report, an annually published document critiquing countries' responses to human trafficking, is frequently moderated by larger political considerations involving the countries being evaluated.
The U.S.'s pursuit of stronger trade ties in the region, as part of its "strategic pivot," is on the mark, provided this approach is detached from unenforceable, moralistic evangelism. The U.S. cannot hope for significant gains in trade while halfheartedly pursuing a human rights agenda.
Southeast Asian governments, simultaneously, have responsibilities as well. Their political environments would benefit from the stability afforded by effective institutions that support the rule of law and tolerate dissenting viewpoints. This is recognized by governments in the region who struggle to manage surging social media outlets and who are fearful of an "Asian spring."
But the U.S.'s human rights policy status quo will not encourage change. America, in spite of recent troubles, still presents an enviable political and economic model for the world. Southeast Asia already sees America as a beacon of participatory governance and the epitome of sustainable democracy. The U.S. does far better as a role model than as a preacher.
Change comes from within
A politically maturing Viet Nam, 25 years after economic liberalization, is inevitably trending toward more, rather than fewer, democratic principles as it becomes increasingly globally integrated. Optimistically, the same can be said of its Southeast Asian neighbors, whether Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia. They must all continue to reinvent themselves, because in a globally integrated world, their export driven economies are susceptible to the peaks and troughs of global expansions and recessions.
These countries will need to develop institutions that are accountable to their citizenries when economic pressures force layoffs.
History is difficult to observe when you are living it. But the U.S. should try to step back and recognize that its human rights agenda in Southeast Asia will only be sustainable if those persons who recognize a need for global standards are left to pursue this agenda for their own purposes.
As the Dalai Lama wrote, "True change is within; leave the outside as it is."