In Burma, Opportunity for US

Suggested steps after Aung San Suu Kyi's release

Myanmar's newly-released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (C) smiles as she arrives at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon on November 15, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

By Suzanne DiMaggio

Originally published by The Boston Globe on Nov. 17, 2010

NEW YORK - Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's long-awaited release from house arrest has stirred cautious hope in people worldwide, and Burma's military leaders are spinning the event as part of their seven-step program to "disciplined democracy."

It is more likely an attempt to deflect attention away from widespread reports of fraud and vote-rigging in this month’s election, in which the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party claims to have won 80 percent of the vote. Suu Kyi has been in some form of detention for 15 of the last 21 years. With the elections now behind them, Burma's rulers apparently are confident that her freedom will not interfere with the pre-engineered results—a new government overwhelmingly dominated by the military and retired senior officers, with a sprinkling of representation from opposition and ethnic groups.

Even so, Suu Kyi's release represents an opportunity for the Obama administration, in part because it is bringing renewed international attention to the Burmese people's plight. During this transitional period, the United States, which long sought to isolate the country, should prepare for a protracted period of active engagement. This approach is more likely to help Burma, also known as Myanmar, move away from authoritarian rule and into the world community.

For two decades, the United States had extremely limited channels of communication not just with Burmese military leaders, but also with important segments of the Burmese population. The Obama administration has already taken a step to reverse this approach, by announcing a new policy of "pragmatic engagement" in 2009.

This new policy, to be sure, has yet to yield any concrete results. In September 2010, Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told a gathering in Washington that, after a year of attempting to engage Burma’s military leaders in dialogue on a variety of issues, the lack of a constructive response was deeply disappointing. Nevertheless, he recognized that, after the election, new players, power relationships, and government structures might lead to an improvement in conditions in Burma.

In this changed environment, the United States should quickly recharge efforts to engage with Burmese officials and press for the release of political prisoners. This should include interactions with elected politicians and civil servants alike. More contact will help the United States assess developments on the ground there and decide where it can make positive contributions.

At the same time, the United States must reach out more to democratic forces and to the full variety of ethnic groups inside Burma.

The United States should closely coordinate its policy toward Burma with other governments. Burma's Asian neighbors are directly threatened by instability along the country's borders, including the violent clashes between the junta's forces and ethnic minorities and the outflow of refugees and narcotics. Beyond this, rumors of cooperation between Burma and North Korea on military and nuclear technology are unsettling both to the United States and to countries throughout the region.

Even so, a big challenge will be convincing India and China—Burma's key military backers and trading partners—to use their leverage. In his recent address to India's Parliament, President Obama voiced support for a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council, but he also rebuked Delhi for not doing more to help in Burma. The gap with China on Burma seems as wide as ever; Beijing hailed the compromised elections as a critical step forward in Burma’s "transition to an elected government."

Even as the United States re-engages with Burma, US officials must keep an eye on the junta’s behavior. Burma's ruling generals have released Suu Kyi in the past, only to imprison her again when she engaged in political activity. If this turns out to be another ploy to re-detain her, the United States should move swiftly to tighten financial sanctions against Burma's junta and press for an international inquiry into potential war crimes and crimes against humanity by Burma's military leaders.

Suzanne DiMaggio is Asia Society's Director of Policy Studies and Director of the Task Force on U.S. Policy toward Burma/Myanmar.