Commentary Magazine


Topic: Thein Sein

Risk and Reward in Burmese Diplomacy

If Burmese democratization continues apace, historians will look for a “Berlin Wall moment”–something that signified the true beginning of the end for the country’s authoritarian past. They will probably settle on May 2, 2012, when Nobel Peace laureate, democracy activist, and longtime Burmese opposition dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was finally sworn in to the country’s parliament after being permitted to run in free and fair by-elections. That was indeed a powerful moment, but the more accurate choice would be September 30, 2011. That’s when Burmese President Thein Sein informed parliament that he was canceling a controversial dam project funded by China and vocally opposed by the local population.

It was remarkable that Thein Sein, who succeeded the dictatorial Than Shwe, had bowed to the will of the people. But it was perhaps even more remarkable that he told them so. “As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people’s will. We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness. So construction of Myitsone Dam will be suspended in the time of our government,” Thein Sein wrote to parliament. The suspension of the dam project not only set a precedent of accountability. It also signaled that Burma would not be an economic protectorate of a rising China–a decision that represented an outstretched hand to Western governments and, more importantly for a poor country, Western businesses.

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If Burmese democratization continues apace, historians will look for a “Berlin Wall moment”–something that signified the true beginning of the end for the country’s authoritarian past. They will probably settle on May 2, 2012, when Nobel Peace laureate, democracy activist, and longtime Burmese opposition dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was finally sworn in to the country’s parliament after being permitted to run in free and fair by-elections. That was indeed a powerful moment, but the more accurate choice would be September 30, 2011. That’s when Burmese President Thein Sein informed parliament that he was canceling a controversial dam project funded by China and vocally opposed by the local population.

It was remarkable that Thein Sein, who succeeded the dictatorial Than Shwe, had bowed to the will of the people. But it was perhaps even more remarkable that he told them so. “As our government is elected by the people, it is to respect the people’s will. We have the responsibility to address public concerns in all seriousness. So construction of Myitsone Dam will be suspended in the time of our government,” Thein Sein wrote to parliament. The suspension of the dam project not only set a precedent of accountability. It also signaled that Burma would not be an economic protectorate of a rising China–a decision that represented an outstretched hand to Western governments and, more importantly for a poor country, Western businesses.

Since then political liberalization has continued, political prisoners have been freed, Western sanctions have been lifted, and high-profile visits culminate today in President Obama’s personal visit to Burma–the first time a sitting U.S. president has done so. Is Burma ready for all this attention? The answer may be found in the answer to another oft-posed question since this trip was announced: Why is Obama making the trip at all? That riddle is easier to solve: because Burma is the one foreign policy success that can be plausibly attributed to the president’s strategic vision. Obama prefers engagement and, where possible (or necessary), sanctions. Such a policy has left much of what this White House has touched in tatters.

Neither the president’s watered-down sanctions nor his stubborn obsession with engagement have stopped Iran’s nuclear program. His major foreign policy success is the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which relied on the use of force, intelligence gained under his predecessor, and the heavyhanded dismissal of another country’s territorial sovereignty. Force worked in the effort to oust Moammar Gaddafi, but the light footprint follow-up–the president’s vaunted “leading from behind”–has been a colossal disaster marked by the murder of our ambassador there and four others.

So the answer to the second question–because Obama must cling to what may turn out to be his one success not attributable to the use of overwhelming force–also provides an answer to whether Burma is ready for such a visit: It doesn’t matter. Obama needs this trip and this photo op, and so he will get it.

Human rights groups and even Aung San Suu Kyi aren’t thrilled with the visit, the latter warning of a “mirage” of success. A day earlier, in Thailand, Obama responded to his critics by saying that “if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”

Obama should be applauded for supporting a fledgling democracy, but he shouldn’t ignore his own advice. He has been known to warn against “spiking the football”; how much more so should he avoid the temptation to celebrate at the five-yard line.

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Long-Awaited Progress in Myanmar

It’s great to see the government of Myanmar lifting restrictions on the press. Having just spent a week traveling around this distant country, I was struck, as many visitors have been, by the friendliness and hospitality of its inhabitants, by the haunting beauty of its jungle-and-mountain landscape, by the impressive number of spellbinding Buddhas, pagodas, and temples scattered everywhere–and of course by the terrible poverty of what is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has some first-rate hotels, but not much infrastructure beyond that–in Yangon, the capital, ordinary people travel in overpacked pickup trucks that double as buses. Throughout the country most people lack electricity, running water and other essentials. Per capita income is just $1,300 a year, an incomprehensibly low sum by American standards. Myanmar does not have the worst poverty I have ever seen because so much of the country is rural; urban shantytowns in Africa or Latin America appear, at least from this outsider’s perspective, to be far worse living places because they lack the social and familial support structure that exists in Myanmar’s villages. But Myanmar is bad enough–the poorest country in Southeast Asia. And that is the case despite its rich natural resources and its great potential for tourism.

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It’s great to see the government of Myanmar lifting restrictions on the press. Having just spent a week traveling around this distant country, I was struck, as many visitors have been, by the friendliness and hospitality of its inhabitants, by the haunting beauty of its jungle-and-mountain landscape, by the impressive number of spellbinding Buddhas, pagodas, and temples scattered everywhere–and of course by the terrible poverty of what is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has some first-rate hotels, but not much infrastructure beyond that–in Yangon, the capital, ordinary people travel in overpacked pickup trucks that double as buses. Throughout the country most people lack electricity, running water and other essentials. Per capita income is just $1,300 a year, an incomprehensibly low sum by American standards. Myanmar does not have the worst poverty I have ever seen because so much of the country is rural; urban shantytowns in Africa or Latin America appear, at least from this outsider’s perspective, to be far worse living places because they lack the social and familial support structure that exists in Myanmar’s villages. But Myanmar is bad enough–the poorest country in Southeast Asia. And that is the case despite its rich natural resources and its great potential for tourism.

The blame for that state of affairs lies squarely with the military junta that has mismanaged the country for decades, lining their own pockets while impoverishing the population. That parlous state of affairs has changed in the past couple of years under the leadership of former general Thein Sein, who has emerged as a Burmese Gorbachev, dismantling from within the system that put him into power. His most important symbolic move has been to free the brave dissident leader (and Nobel laureate ) Aung San Suu Kyi, known to Burmese simply as “The Lady,” from house arrest. Her party has been allowed to contest parliamentary elections, winning 43 of 45 open seats in April. (I visited their Yangon headquarters in a modest storefront stuffed with literature being distributed by volunteers and T-shirts and umbrellas depicting their hero being sold to passers-by.) Other political prisoners have also been sprung from prison although some remain behind bars.

It is not yet clear what is next for Myanmar; the political opening remains fragile and incomplete. But if the trajectory of the past couple of years continues, it will become a liberal democracy. Greater prosperity is sure to follow once all international sanctions are lifted. The repeal of censorship on the press is another small but important step down that road.

There is not a better feel-good story in the world right now. The Obama administration is certainly not driving these reforms; no outsider is. But President Obama and Secretary Clinton deserve credit for the skill with which they have managed the opening. They have struck just the right balance between rewarding Myanmar for its reforms while pushing for more.

I couldn’t be happier for this land which has been victimized for so long by brutal oppressors. I can’t help thinking of all the wonderful Burmese I met–all of them working for paltry wages–who are both bewildered and overjoyed by their good fortune. They deserve a better future after so many years of suffering.

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Burma Outreach

How’s our Burma outreach going? Well, not so well. Frankly, we aren’t even effectively reaching out to our allies on the subject. As this report explains, Obama, in his meetings with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and other Southeast Asian leaders, called for the release of Nobel Prize–winning democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He didn’t do anything more, however, and the pro-democracy advocates are noticing:

Mr. Obama failed to secure any mention of political prisoners in a communique issued by the meeting’s participants afterward. That failure disappointed dissidents who were hoping the president’s involvement would encourage Southeast Asian leaders to take a harder line on Myanmar’s junta, which is accused of widespread human-rights abuses but remains a trading partner with much of the region.

The failure to single out Ms. Suu Kyi was “another blow” to dissidents who want more pressure on the regime, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based organization. “We keep saying again and again that the U.S. should not send a mixed signal to the regime.”

For all his powers of persuasion, he seemed unable — or was it unwilling — to round up support for Suu Kyi’s releases. But we are told that “U.S. officials had taken pains to reduce expectations for the meeting, which occurred between sessions at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and was part of a new initiative by the Obama administration to increase interaction with the Myanmar government.” Well, the “new initiative” sort of raised the expectations, didn’t it? The Obami seem confused once again. The Obami seem confused once again. They are contemplating a “new initiative” to be launched on Burma, and promising that “engagement” offers a more productive way forward. But they don’t quite grasp that when there’s no result to all this, because the Burma regime is impervious to “engagement,” then the Obama effort will look like a failure. That is how things usually work; the apparent denseness of the Obama team after months and months on the job is not heartening.

And meanwhile, “criticism from dissidents will likely intensify if results aren’t seen soon, increasing the pressure on U.S. officials to show progress or walk away. ‘I think there is a need for some gestures now’ from the Myanmar side, or the U.S. might have to scale back its re-engagement with the regime, said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Australia. He called the meeting ‘very disappointing’ because of the failure of Southeast Asian nations to follow Mr. Obama’s lead and press for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release.” Disappointing indeed. But hardly surprising to anyone other than the Obami.

How’s our Burma outreach going? Well, not so well. Frankly, we aren’t even effectively reaching out to our allies on the subject. As this report explains, Obama, in his meetings with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and other Southeast Asian leaders, called for the release of Nobel Prize–winning democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He didn’t do anything more, however, and the pro-democracy advocates are noticing:

Mr. Obama failed to secure any mention of political prisoners in a communique issued by the meeting’s participants afterward. That failure disappointed dissidents who were hoping the president’s involvement would encourage Southeast Asian leaders to take a harder line on Myanmar’s junta, which is accused of widespread human-rights abuses but remains a trading partner with much of the region.

The failure to single out Ms. Suu Kyi was “another blow” to dissidents who want more pressure on the regime, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based organization. “We keep saying again and again that the U.S. should not send a mixed signal to the regime.”

For all his powers of persuasion, he seemed unable — or was it unwilling — to round up support for Suu Kyi’s releases. But we are told that “U.S. officials had taken pains to reduce expectations for the meeting, which occurred between sessions at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and was part of a new initiative by the Obama administration to increase interaction with the Myanmar government.” Well, the “new initiative” sort of raised the expectations, didn’t it? The Obami seem confused once again. The Obami seem confused once again. They are contemplating a “new initiative” to be launched on Burma, and promising that “engagement” offers a more productive way forward. But they don’t quite grasp that when there’s no result to all this, because the Burma regime is impervious to “engagement,” then the Obama effort will look like a failure. That is how things usually work; the apparent denseness of the Obama team after months and months on the job is not heartening.

And meanwhile, “criticism from dissidents will likely intensify if results aren’t seen soon, increasing the pressure on U.S. officials to show progress or walk away. ‘I think there is a need for some gestures now’ from the Myanmar side, or the U.S. might have to scale back its re-engagement with the regime, said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Australia. He called the meeting ‘very disappointing’ because of the failure of Southeast Asian nations to follow Mr. Obama’s lead and press for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release.” Disappointing indeed. But hardly surprising to anyone other than the Obami.

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