For half a century, formidable forces rebel armies, uprisings, economic sanctions, pressure by the United Nations have attempted to dislodge or at least temper Myanmar’s ruling junta. All have failed.
The generals of Myanmar, also known as Burma, continue to crush popular protests with guns, commit atrocities against ethnic minorities and currently hold more than 2,000 political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for more than 13 of the past 19 years.
So can any new approach by Obama effect meaningful change in Myanmar?
Options in his arsenal appear limited, but some will be tried, and they could prove important.
“If there is going to be any change in international policy which will make a difference, it’s going to have to come from Washington. The U.S. remains a key player,” says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and former U.N. official. “For the Burmese government, the U.S. holds out what they want, which is international acceptability and respect, and an end to its pariah status.”
A prominent Southeast Asian politician agreed.
“Obama could be a pivotal leader (on the issue) because of his high concern for democracy and human rights,” Philippine Senator and former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel told the Associated Press.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her recent Asian swing, indicated Washington was “looking at what steps we might take that might influence the current Burmese government and we’re also looking for ways that we could more effectively help the Burmese people.”
Analysts foresee more carefully crafted U.S. sanctions, greater cooperation with the United Nations and others to forge a common front on Myanmar, and trying to convince China to exert influence on its close ally. But employing a carrot and a stick, humanitarian aid may also be increased.
“Obama’s approach to foreign policy, a stress on common action among allies and negotiation, will be more effective than Bush’s unilateralism and moralistic hectoring,” says Donald M. Seekins, a Myanmar expert at Japan’s Meio University.
Obama’s new U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice has said there remained “scope for greater regional and international action to pressure Burma’s dictators,” including multilateral sanctions and getting Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors to support tougher action.
But she warned Myanmar may represent “one of the most intractable challenges for the global community.”
In a country where many still regard the United States as a potential savior, there is skepticism that the new president can loosen the junta’s grip on power but also some hope.
Myanmar, under the military’s grip since 1962, may be one of the few countries where many say they would welcome an invasion by the United States or at least a bombing of the junta’s remote, bunker-like capital of Naypyitaw.
Although censors banned the publication of Obama’s inauguration speech, many managed access and interpreted his remarks about the world’s dictators as an open message to Myanmar’s generals.
“President Obama was referring to Myanmar. He is willing to help the Myanmar government if they are ready to accept American assistance, but also gave a strong signal that America will not tolerate corrupt regimes,” said lawyer Maung Maung Gyi, citing Obama’s warning to those “who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” and Washington’s readiness to assist those who would “unclench your fist.”
has come out in support of sanctions against the junta, and during the presidential campaign likened Suu Kyi to the late American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The sanctions, which have strong bipartisan backing, include a post-1997 ban on all U.S. investments in Myanmar and the freezing of U.S. assets of junta leaders.
In the past, Washington has also tried to exert some pressure through the United Nations and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar. But China, Russia and India all with economic or strategic interests in Myanmar have blocked such moves while ASEAN’s policy of noninterference has hindered reform in Myanmar.
The annual summit of ASEAN leaders, hosted by Thailand later this week, is almost certainly to be another case of what the Burmese jokingly call “NATO” No Action, Talk Only on the Myanmar issue.
But some Southeast Asian figures are pressing for both more ASEAN as well as U.S. action on Myanmar.
“ASEAN has to flex its muscle more. ASEAN should be in the forefront of the struggle for human rights in Myanmar but probably the European Union and the United States can impose some measures that will compel Myanmar’s military rulers to address the plight of its people,” Pimentel said in Manila.
This history caused Clinton to lament: “It is an unfortunate fact that Burma seems impervious to influences from anyone. The path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta, but … reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either.”
Washington currently applies political and economic sanctions against Myanmar because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
Thant Myint-U of Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, said the sanctions would make sense “if the U.S. was willing to make Burma it’s No. 1 priority and use all its leverage with China and India to make them global and that’s not going to happen.”
Washington instead should move ahead with direct talks and real engagement in an effort to influence the next generation of military leaders, he said, because they hold the key to change.