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.

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.

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.

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.

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