Out of House Arrest, Into the Fire

Aung San Suu Kyi's release is great news for the dissident and her supporters -- but it's not going to mean anything for democracy in Burma.
BY STEVE FINCH | DECEMBER 15, 2010                    Foreign Policy Magazine

Speaking after her release from more than seven years of house arrest in Rangoon, Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi said of her freedom, "We want to use this as an opportunity [for democracy]." But she didn't explain how that opportunity might best be exploited. Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi has been consistently vague about how Burma, the Southeast Asian pariah state that first imprisoned her just before she won a free election in 1990, can plausibly experience genuine political reform in the near future. Worse, the West has seemed equally at a loss, especially since the Burmese leadership engineered a sham election in which it returned to power in a landslide. Aung San Suu Kyi seems intent on remaining hopeful, but unfortunately, the international community seems little inclined to help correct the injustices of Burma's political system.

The main problem remains stubbornly in place: lack of unity in the international community. While the West talks of sanctions and punishment to coerce the generals, China, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continue to prefer a less confrontational approach. The result has been persistent failure both to develop a strategy to secure the release of the regime's 2,200 political prisoners and to facilitate reconciliation between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, warns that in the past, when the regime has shown Aung San Suu Kyi a cold shoulder, the international community has usually abandoned her as well. "There is a cycle that happens in Burma, and it is in danger of happening again," he said, in referring to the ruling junta's repeated refusal to respond to offers of dialogue and compromise by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Despite the excitement over Aung San Suu Kyi's release, so far the cycle seems ready to once again run its course. According to a Burma legal source in Washington, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, told Burmese groups in November that the United States is taking a "wait-and-see" approach. President Barack Obama's administration has for the moment decided not to further pursue a U.N. commission of inquiry first recommended in March by Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, that would look into war crimes Burma's junta might have committed against its own people, an approach shot down by China in particular ahead of the election. The administration otherwise has no other plans to adjust economic sanctions, said the source.

When asked directly, the State Department gave few specifics about its plans. "U.S. Burma policy will continue to combine pressure and principled engagement to promote a free and democratic Burma that respects human rights, adheres to the rule of law, and fully complies with its international obligations," said an official last month following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

It's clear that the Obama administration has Burma in mind, even if its official pronouncements are less reassuring. Among the first 200 or so WikiLeaks diplomatic cable releases last week was one message from the secretary of state's office dated July 31, 2009, classifying Burma as one of eight "key continuing issues" for the United States together with Iraq and the Middle East. Addressed to 36 U.S. missions, including those in the capitals of the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, and Russia -- the cable asked staff to collect intelligence on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's intentions regarding Burma, how the world body planned to address the recent elections and engage with the regime, and attitudes toward Burma among Security Council members.

The memo suggests that Washington sees the United Nations as the most viable arena in which to address Burma's democracy and human rights problems. The Obama administration seems to have concluded that unilateral actions, whether economic or military, stand little chance of success. But the United Nations' track record in Burma is not good. All attempts to discipline the junta, such as the recent efforts by Western countries to pursue a U.N. commission of inquiry, have been held up by China and Russia. Their unwillingness to chastise Burma has drained momentum from the issue entirely, at least in the Security Council, which has not held a session on Burma since July 2009 because of Chinese opposition. The September 2006 decision to place the country on the Security Council's formal agenda has largely been for naught

China's government has held up progress in Burma outside the United Nations as well. While the West, India, and even Singapore welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi's Nov. 13 release as a positive step, China's Foreign Ministry was ducking all questions regarding Beijing's stance on negotiations to end her detention. Beijing has instead backed the junta line, welcoming last month's much-criticized elections as a major step toward democratization. Of the many diplomats who met with Aung San Suu Kyi the morning after her release, Chinese Ambassador Ye Dabo was the most notable absentee.

Indeed, China's priorities regarding Burma lie elsewhere. The Chinese government has stated publicly that it sees Burma as a necessary alternative transit route for energy that could bypass the congested Strait of Malacca. China National Petroleum Corp. started building an 800-kilometer oil and gas pipeline from Burma's western coast up to Yunnan province earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Burma's other major neighbor, India -- which also owns gas interests in the country -- has shown hardly any more willingness to antagonize the junta. Just a week before last month's elections, India called the proposed U.N. commission of inquiry on Burma "counterproductive," which prompted a sharp rebuke from Aung San Suu Kyi herself shortly after her release. When Obama visited New Delhi shortly after Burma's flawed vote, he accused India of shying away from criticizing regimes like Burma, but that kind of pressure has had little impact on Indian elites.

ASEAN, which includes Burma, remains divided on how to tackle the regime. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore have occasionally shown a willingness to fall into line with the West, but Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have generally sided with Beijing on this issue.
The sum total of all this is that the West has almost no allies when it comes to Burma. Although Aung San Suu Kyi told journalists the day after her release that "my message is not for the Western nations in particular," her inability to engage other major players has weakened her efforts.

But no matter how tough the situation diplomatically, it still behooves the Obama administration to try to resolve it -- and it's unclear whether Washington is willing to step into the breach. Although Congress mandated for a special representative and policy coordinator on Burma two years ago, this role has never been filled, and there has been no official explanation for the holdup.

So where do Aung San Suu Kyi and the West go from here? Possibly, nowhere.
"We have to understand that the recent election and Aung San Suu Kyi's release were not the beginning of the end of repression, or the first, tangible step toward national reconciliation," says Burma specialist Bertil Lintner. "There is no hope for 'reconciliation' or 'dialogue' in Burma. Those popular catchphrases are based on wishful thinking." And, of course, wishful thinking won't do much to bring real democracy to Burma.

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