This post is based on my jots from the recent Senate hearing on US-Burma relations. (For an overview of the hearing see, "Burma is not Vietnam." See also "Burmese slam Senate hearings" and "US Senate AWOL on Burma.")
The first step towards engaging Burma is to convince the country's paranoid junta that you have no plans to invade or bomb their country. Given that the US has done plenty of invading and bombing over the years, that's a tough sell. Especially to a group of generals who live in a fortified bunker-city deep in the jungle. Anyway, this problem was the focus of an exchange between the senator chairing the meeting and the Dep. Sec. of State.
Sen. Webb asked Dep. Sec. of State Kurt Campbell about "covert funding to exile groups."
Campbell replied, "Another forum would be a better place to address that issue."
"We shall pursue that in another forum" replied Sen. Jim Webb.
Sen. Webb asked Campbell if he would like to comment on any exile groups that might want to overthrow the government; Webb asked whether Campbell had had made it "clear" during his recent meetings with Mynamar "that we have no military objectives to overthrow their government?"
Campbell replied that "we need to make it clear" to the Burmese through "dialogue" that we "have no intention to overthrow the government."
Thant Myint-U, an author and scholar, stressed that key opportunities had been missed. New leadership had brought in satelite TV, and so on, the government had sought engagement but the US had not reciprocated. Had we not stood in the way of gradual change, there would have been more change for the better.
Myint-U said that "a new generation of leaders, aged 40-50, is coming up in Burma. They lack combat experience." Myint-U explained that the transition to the new constitution will coincide with a change in Burma to a new, younger group of leaders.
"Unexpected changes" are likely, he said, especially as constitutionally mandated change coincides with changes within the ranks of the army.
Thant Myint-U emphasized the importance of "elite exposure." He said we need to influence the minds of the officer corps. Myint-U made several other suggestions:
- use disaster risk reduction towards this ends
- lift the ban on the import of garments.
- encourage the shift from military to civilian rule by increasing the competency of civilian technocrats.
Steinberg suggested that the US and Burma relations were at a "critical nexus." And, asking what might be done, listed five things, but emphasized that the US needs to "set its sights as changes occur in society, and the country becomes more open."
- A US ambassador to Burma needs approval, confirmation by the Senate.
- Humanitarian assistance needs upgrading.
- Minority questions are paramount, and must be addressed.
- Rohingya problem is tops. "These stateless people on the Burma-Bangladesh border are the most deprived of all Burma's minorities."
- Restrictions on NGOs dating back to 2006 need to be lifted.
David Williams of Indiana University spoke of the Karin as the Scotch Irish of the hills, a fiercely independent people. "They need our help," he said.
Williams spoke of "suffering on a Biblical scale" along Burma's borders. He described an epidemic of rapes. "Reading individual accounts of women is excruciating" he said, describing one woman who was raped while reaping rice.
Williams said the US should supply cross-border aid (not just to refugees on the Thailand side), demand an end to these attacks on civilians, and initiate trilateral talks which include both the NLD and the military junta.
Photos: by Jotman. Top left, Sen. Jim Webb. On the right is Kurt Campbell.