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.
(Page 2 of 2)
This would enable US-based humanitarian organizations to continue their work and interaction with Burmese counterparts, ranging from village elders and monastery abbots to township administrators and military officers, without the disruptions caused by license renewal and lapse. This type of interaction serves to build working relations among civil society in a country where the regime has systematically dismantled social networks.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Second, lawmakers and opinion shapers must stop thinking of the junta as a monolith. Some of the greatest allies to humanitarian organizations have been mid-level bureaucrats and officers.
Change in Burma will come from within, and these are some of the individuals positioned to advance that change, even if slowly and under enormous pressure to conform to the ruling generals.
To build trust with potential change agents, the United States and ASEAN should invite select mid-level officers to participate in joint civilian-military exercises in disaster preparedness and response.
Finally, the US should reexamine its role as "bad cop." By taking an aggressive and threatening stance, the US sets the stage for the "good cops" – China, India, and ASEAN – to act sympathetically and have their proposals received by the ruling generals as palatable compromises.
This was effective last May when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and representatives from Thailand and Singapore successfully negotiated increased access for humanitarian assistance. The problem with the good cop, bad cop routine at the moment is that the actors do not share a common agenda.
Burma's neighbors have chosen engagement. China has extensive trade relations with Burma and uses it as a back door to the Bay of Bengal. India sells arms to the junta as a counterpoint to China's influence, and the members of ASEAN are sticking to their guiding principle of "noninterference" and in pursuit of trade and investment. This directly undermines the US policies of isolation and sanctions.
To align positions, the US needs to participate in regional summits and conversations at the UN. It must do so with the aim of developing a shared approach and agreed-upon incentives and punitive measures to be deployed by the nations interested in Burma's future.
That also would lend credence to the UN's efforts to persuade the regime to release Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and to commit to meaningful democratic reforms. On July 3, Secretary Ban arrived in Burma to meet with ruling Gen. Than Shwe and to assess Suu Kyi's current trial, though he was unable to visit with her personally.
She is charged with violating the terms of her house arrest when an uninvited American swam across a lake to her home. The junta is using this incident as an excuse to extend her detention. Clearly, the US should not desert Suu Kyi.
But the Obama administration should consider a new policy toward Burma that does not pivot solely on her release. The time is ripe to pursue new ways to support the Burmese people who have peaceful aspirations for a democratic future. Without a new approach to Burma, the US risks more of the same.
Ella Gudwin is director of Eurasia and Asia Pacific Partnerships at the international relief organization AmeriCares. She was in Yangon, Burma, in May 2008 coordinating emergency health aid following cyclone Nargis and continues to manage AmeriCares assistance to the country. She's a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Editor's note: It's the Monitor's editorial policy to use the name Burma with a reference to Myanmar. This usage does not reflect the writer's politics.