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Breaking Burma's Isolation

Myanmar soldiers take part in a military parade marking the country's 65th Armed Forces Day in the new capital of Naypyidaw on Mar. 27, 2010. (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar soldiers take part in a military parade marking the country's 65th Armed Forces Day in the new capital of Naypyidaw on Mar. 27, 2010. (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

By Wesley K. Clark, Henrietta H. Fore, and Suzanne DiMaggio

Originally published by Project Syndicate, May 3, 2010 

The Obama administration's decision to seek a new way forward in United States-Burma relations recognizes that decades of trying to isolate Burma (Myanmar) in order to change the behavior of its government have achieved little. With Burma's ruling generals preparing to hold elections later this year—for the first time since 1990—it is time to try something different.

Attempting to engage one of the world's most authoritarian governments will not be easy. There is no evidence to indicate that Burma's leaders will respond positively to the Obama administration's central message, which calls for releasing the estimated 2,100 political prisoners (including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), engaging in genuine dialogue with the opposition, and allowing fair and inclusive elections. In fact, the recently enacted electoral laws, which have been met with international condemnation, already point to a process that lacks credibility.

This past fall, we convened a task force under the auspices of the Asia Society to consider how the US can best pursue a path of engagement with Burma. We concluded that the US must ensure that its policies do not inadvertently support or encourage authoritarian and corrupt elements in Burmese society. At the same time, if the US sets the bar too high at the outset, it will deny itself an effective role in helping to move Burma away from authoritarian rule and into the world community.

During this period of uncertainty, we recommend framing US policy toward Burma on the basis of changes taking place in the country, using both engagement and sanctions to encourage reform. The Obama administration’s decision to maintain trade and investment sanctions on Burma in the absence of meaningful change, particularly with regard to the Burmese government's intolerance of political opposition, is correct.

Yet there are other measures that should be pursued now. The US should engage not only with Burma's leaders, but also with a wide range of groups inside the country to encourage the dialogue necessary to bring about national reconciliation of the military, democracy groups, and non-Burmese nationalities. The removal by the US of some noneconomic sanctions designed to restrict official bilateral interaction is welcome, and an even greater relaxation in communications, through both official and unofficial channels, should be implemented. Expanding such channels, especially during a period of potential political change, will strengthen US leverage.

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