Policy on Burma shouldn't pivot on Aung San Suu Kyi
Millions still need her. But her release should not be the focal point of US policy toward the junta.
As Aung San Suu Kyi rounds out 5,000 days as a political prisoner, the Nobel Peace laureate and leader of what remains the opposition movement in Burma (Myanmar) continues to be an extraordinary champion of democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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Millions still need her. But her release should no longer be the primary focal point of US foreign policy toward Burma's junta.
To be sure, if the military rulers were to fall from power, she would be the clear choice for president. She is an inspiration to millions and a rallying point for domestic and international human rights groups and advocates for political reform.
However, for years, Washington's myopic emphasis on Ms. Suu Kyi's release from house arrest – reiterated by Secretary of State Clinton just this week – has produced no results. So as the Obama administration extends its open hand to "clenched fists" around the world, it should add Burma to the list.
This does not mean abandoning the pursuit of Suu Kyi's release, but rather shifting away from isolationist policies aimed at punishing and coercing the regime.
Rarely are foreign actors successful in advancing domestic struggles for democratization. For the most part, change through people power must come from within a nation. But every so often, there is a unique opportunity for outsiders to assert pressure or try a new approach.
That critical point for Burma came in May 2008, when cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta in the west and killed more than 100,000 people. The ensuing flow of humanitarian assistance from the international community and extensive postdisaster reconstruction initiatives resulted in a year of unprecedented engagement between the government, foreign nationals, and community leaders.
The Bush administration failed to capitalize on this opportunity. Rather than engage the government on humanitarian objectives following the cyclone, last July Bush signed legislation renewing and sharpening sanctions. While reconstruction efforts are beginning to ebb, the world watches Burma once again as Suu Kyi faces trial once more. The Obama administration still has an opportunity to change US policy.
In the coming months, the White House and the State Department should focus on three things: supporting the development of civil society networks in Burma; building trust with reform-minded mid-level officers; and aligning the agendas of countries interested in Burma's future, especially China, India, and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
To accomplish this, Congress should first direct the Treasury Department to issue multiyear licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to qualifying nongovernmental organizations working on long-term reconstruction and development projects in Burma.